Missed opportunities for peace
Missed opportunities for peace
Op-Ed / Global 6 minutes

Missed opportunities for peace

The crises and conflicts that already dominate the early headlines in 2003 are again the familiar quartet that consumed us last year: Iraq, North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ongoing struggle against global terrorism. The tragedy is that better policy could have made it otherwise. While last year was one in which real progress was made in solving many of the world's less visible bloodbaths, for the crises that are now dominating debate in global capitals - and certainly here at Davos this week - 2002 was a year of lost opportunity.

The biggest lost opportunity, and the one with the widest ongoing consequences, has been the alarmingly deteriorating situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies. The leaders of both sides - with not much immediate prospect of change in either - are locked into a scorpion dance of mutual rage, hatred and recrimination while the toll of death, destruction and misery continues inexorably to mount. But there is a way out. The compromises that will have to be made to achieve a final political settlement - on borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugee returns and security measures - have been exhaustively mapped, not least by ICG, and are generally accepted as feasible by negotiators on both sides. They have wide support internationally, including in the Arab world (as the support for Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's initiative amply showed). And there is plenty of reason to believe they would be saleable to both Israeli and Palestinian publics: at the same time that the opinion polls, reflecting the current despair, show 70 per cent support on each side for the harshest measures being taken against the other, they also show similar majorities on both sides for a viable two-State solution.

The missing ingredient in the mix is the spark to make it all happen. Almost everyone now believes that the cycle of violence can only now be broken by a major international initiative, led by the United States, putting the strongest pressure on both sides to return to the negotiating table they abandoned two years ago - with all the issues, including the political endgame, on the table simultaneously rather than sequentially. Any roadmap demanding that absolute calm be restored, or major Palestinian institutional reform be achieved, as a precondition for serious engagement on final settlement terms, is a roadmap to nowhere. The incremental, conditional approach at the heart of the Oslo process has been tried and failed: there is just not the trust, and the domestic leadership, to make its re-creation possible.

The trouble is that while this view is just about universally accepted by both Israeli and Palestinian moderates, throughout most of the Arab world, and throughout Europe (with Tony Blair one of its strongest advocates), it has not so far been accepted where it matters most, in Washington DC. Until it is, the carnage will continue in Israel and the Occupied Territories. And the grievance which more than any other inflames sentiment throughout the Arab-Islamic world, and which makes the war on terrorism so desperately difficult to wage, will continue to fester.

Iraq has been another lost opportunity. No one doubts that Saddam is one of nature's monsters, who has waged war in the past on his own people and his neighbours, and who continues to cause untold damage to his country. That's a good reason for every available kind of pressure to be applied to remove him. But neither as a matter of international law or morality is it sufficient ground for going to war: for that a clear and present threat is required, or unequivocal defiance of an enforceable UN Security Council demand. Had the case for military action been put by the US, from the outset and consistently, not in terms of regime change but of the necessity to enforce the UN resolutions demanding Iraq's absolute disarmament of weapons of mass destruction, there would have been a much better chance of war being avoided. Had the US not given the impression that it wanted Saddam's head at all costs, it is much more likely that he would have defused the crisis by owning up in his initial declaration to such chemical, biological and nuclear capacity as he had.

Last year's opportunities are going to be very hard to recreate, but there is still a chance that war can be avoided. The hopes lie in Saddam's survival instinct; deep international reluctance to act without unequivocal public evidence of serious breach of resolution 1441, not least because of the way that war without this cover is likely to further inflame Islamist extremism ; and above all domestic political sentiment in the US - showing itself ever more reluctant for the US to act without clear evidence of threat and international support - which must be increasingly concentrating the President's mind. If the object is to remove any remaining threat posed by Saddam, ways short of war can still be found to achieve it. Creating a sense of irresistible momentum toward assault - as the buildup of both rhetoric and troops in the Gulf is now doing - is a time-honoured means of ensuring that military action in fact becomes unnecessary, as Tony Blair at least no doubt wants to believe. But it can also just create irresistible momentum.

The situation with North Korea is potentially the most catastrophic of all, given the country's record of erratic belligerence, undoubted weapons and delivery capability, massive troop numbers and Seoul's vulnerability. The chances nonetheless are quite high that the present crisis can be defused, as others before it have been, by intelligent diplomacy, of the kind in which China, Russia and the US itself now seem to be engaged, with active support from South Korea and Japan. That things got to this point is, however, no triumph for US diplomacy over the last two years: the coldness toward Russia and especially China pre-911; the distaste shown for South Korea's 'sunshine policy'; the footdragging on the implementation of the previous deal to meet North Korea's energy needs in return for its stepping back from nuclear weapons acquisition; and above all the 'Axis of Evil' rhetoric in the 2002 State of the Union address, all fuelled a renewal of instability on the Peninsula and Pyongyang's paranoia and capacity for misjudgement.

Things were not all downhill in 2002. Peace deals were struck in the Congo, Angola, Sri Lanka and Aceh; major progress has been made in peace talks in Sudan, one of the world's most enduring and bloody wars; a little progress has been made in Somalia and Burundi; war didn't happen in Macedonia. That is not to say that, the big four current issues apart, the world is running out of things to worry about. There are many issues - most of them out of sight and out of mind so far as the rest of the world is concerned - to keep those of us committed to conflict prevention and resolution preoccupied for the foreseeable future. Just for a start, the Maoist insurgency in Nepal has emerged as one of the world's most deadly, with the death toll in recent years exceeding those in Sri Lanka and Indonesia; fighting in the Kivus continues on an ugly scale and threatens to break apart the whole Congo peace deal; many parts of West Africa are extremely unstable, with the latest major problem in Cote d'Ivoire some distance from resolution despite effecive French intermediation; Papua is far from settled and communal problems in a number of other parts of Indonesia bubble disconcertingly; large-scale violence, much of it drug-fuelled, continues in Colombia; the Kashmir problem is no closer to resolution, with Pakistan-India relations still exceedingly fragile; and a number of parts of the Caucasus remain extremely volatile.

What is clear from the success stories of the last year is that the world is not irrevocably and inevitably careering downhill. When intelligent policy is developed, effective mediation engaged, and intelligent leverage applied by outsiders with the capacity to be influential, peace is there to be grasped in even the most long-lasting, bloody and apparently intractable conflicts. It's a matter, as always, of political leadership and political will: being committed to peace, and grabbing the opportunities when they are there to be taken.

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