In an implicit indictment of President George
W. Bush's "global war on terror" and the hawkish pronouncements by
Republican candidate John McCain, a bipartisan group of nearly three dozen U.S.
leaders called here Wednesday for Bush's successor to place much greater emphasis
on high-level diplomacy including direct engagement with Iran and Syria
in dealing with the Middle East and the Muslim world.
In a 152-page report, the group, which included former Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright and Bush's former Deputy Secretary of State and McCain adviser Richard
Armitage, also called for any new administration to work "intensively for
immediate de-escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a viable path
to a two-state solution."
"U.S. leadership in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is critical
not only for Israelis and Palestinians, but also for U.S. relations with Muslim
countries and people worldwide," declared the report, entitled "Changing
Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World."
"It would be hard to overstate the symbolic significance of the conflict,
and the U.S. role in it, for Muslims in the Middle East and around the world,"
it stressed, adding that Washington might also reconsider its efforts to isolate
Hamas, particularly if it maintains its current ceasefire with Israel in Gaza
and reaches a "mutually acceptable resolution" of its conflict with
the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
The group also urged Washington to reassess its relations or lack thereof
with armed Islamist groups, such as Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah, throughout
the region on a case-by-case basis according to specific criteria, such as their
popular and electoral support, their willingness to halt the use of violence,
and whether they have some interests that are complementary to those of the
Under current law, direct relations between the U.S. and groups included on
the State Department's "terrorist" list, including Hamas and Hezbollah,
The report, the product of a series of meetings of prominent foreign policy,
business, religious, military and non-governmental figures sponsored by the
Search for Common Ground and the Consensus Building Institute and calling itself
the "Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement", comes on the eve
of the first televised debate between McCain and his Democratic rival, Sen.
Barack Obama. The debate, which takes place Friday, will be focused on foreign
policy, and the Middle East and the "war on terror" are expected to
be central to the proceedings.
The McCain campaign has been decidedly more hawkish on both fronts, stating
explicitly that he would be prepared under certain circumstances to preemptively
attack Iran's nuclear facilities and mocking Obama's position that the U.S.
should directly engage Iran and Syria without preconditions on a range of issues
and at a very senior, possibly presidential, level.
Just last weekend, two of his surrogates told the right-wing Washington Institute
for Near East Policy (WINEP) that McCain would not become actively engaged in
Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and would discourage Israel from negotiating
a peace agreement with Syria that would return the Golan Heights to Damascus.
Obama has taken precisely the contrary positions.
In that respect, the new report clearly takes Obama's side. "To drive
and coordinate regional diplomacy and signal the seriousness of the U.S. commitment,
the Leadership Group recommends that the next President and Secretary of State
provide consistent, sustained leadership at the highest levels, and empower
senior U.S. officials to explore potential bilateral and regional security agreements
with all governments in the region," it said, adding that "Dialogue
and negotiation with Iran are particularly important given Iran's direct involvement
in both Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its potential to assist
(the U.S.) in Afghanistan."
"The point of the report is to engage, engage, engage," noted one
member of the group, Marc Gopin, an ordained rabbi who teaches religion, diplomacy
and conflict resolution at George Mason University outside Washington.
What was particularly remarkable about the report was that it was adopted by
consensus that included some prominent right-wing figures, most notably Richard
Land, a top figure in the Christian Right associated with the Southern Baptist
Convention, as well as two influential former Republican congressmen, former
Dallas (Texas) Mayor Steve Bartlett, and Vin Weber, who currently serves as
the chairman of the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
The group also included two prominent individuals closely associated with the
so-called "Israel Lobby" Tom Dine, a former head of the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Dennis Ross, a cofounder and consultant
of WINEP, a think tank created by AIPAC, who was also a top Middle East negotiator
for former President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
The report stresses that the alienation between the U.S. and the Muslim world
derives both from problems within the Muslim world itself where the U.S.
is seen as allying itself with and supporting authoritarian regimes that frustrate
their citizens' desires for political and economic change and from U.S.
policies, particularly its staunch support for Israel in its conflict with the
Palestinians and, more recently, its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Most Muslims' primary concerns are about what the United States does,
not what we are," said David Fairman, the report's main author and project
The report calls for the adoption of a "four-pillar" strategy for
reversing anti-U.S. extremism in the Muslim world.
The pillar include resolving ongoing violent conflicts from Palestine to Pakistan
through greater use of diplomacy; improving governance in predominantly Muslim
countries by promoting nonviolence, pluralism, reform, and engagement with parties
that are committed to the same principles regardless of whether they are secular
or Islamist; promoting economic growth; and improving mutual respect through
exchanges, encouraging more in-depth and accuracy in U.S. media coverage, and
using the Muslim-American community as a bridge a bridge between the two worlds.
The group, which met with senior foreign policy legislators Wednesday morning,
called for the next president to spotlight the critical importance of improving
U.S.-Muslim relations in his Inaugural address and immediately affirm the U.S.
commitment to ban all forms of torture. By next April, it said, it should initiate
a "major effort" to resolve regional conflicts in the Middle East,
with respect to Iran and Israel/Palestine.
In his public remarks, Land, a major figure in the Christian Evangelical movement,
stressed the importance of elevating diplomacy in resolving violent conflicts
in the region. "By changing our approach," he said, "we will
... help to reverse the widespread perception that the United States is at war
He also endorsed engagement with Iran on a number of issues, citing with approval
Winston Churchill's famous statement, "Jaw-Jaw is better than war-war."
Just last week, five former secretaries of state, including Albright and three
who served Republ