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Don't forget diplomacy in response to Libya attack

Sep 20, 2012 - By The Seattle Times

If the residual turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan does not make the point, then the seeming chaos in the Arab world should invoke the operative word: humility.

For all of the economic and military power possessed by the United States, there are limits to what can be accomplished, ordered or presumed. This has been the case for decades, but the world's capacity to go its own way is all the more evident.

Banishing the Middle East of despots and dictators has cleared the way for bloody sectarian strife. The civil chaos and religious violence in the Arab world has the horrific echo of the Balkans, when Yugoslavia disintegrated into long-suppressed political, ethnic and sectarian clashes. Grudges that dated to the 13th century were rekindled for political gain and inspiration for atrocities.

This time it was a disgusting anti-Islamic video that was exploited for local political purposes.

The U.S. debate over the appropriate response to events in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Iran cannot start with the default answer. The U.S. military was in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 when that country turned on itself. Afghanistan still bleeds.

The role and opportunity for U.S. diplomacy has never been more apparent. Comfortable working relationships with authoritarian rulers precluded getting to know the outsiders. As circumstances bring them to power, they can be virtual strangers.

Leaven the economic and political tensions with ancient religious feuds and we and our allies can be clueless. Arming opponents of a hated regime might be a good thing, but identifying which faction in the midst of rebellion should receive the aid is no easy decision.

The tragic murder of Libyan Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens illustrates the loss for both sides. The U.S. lost a credible, articulate voice for its views and interests, and the Libyan people lost a caring, knowledgeable ally.

Disengagement from the Middle East and Arab hot spots is not an option. Diplomacy has never been more important. The U.S. must be willing to engage and listen.

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