Hillary Should Get on the Road to Damascus

By Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarlandNational Security Expert

After decades of diplomacy in the Middle East, it seems there are two schools of thought on how to proceed. One school says a relations between two countries grows from the bottom up. Negotiations are between the countries directly involved and focus on specifics like trade agreements, border arrangements, military deployments and money changing hands. The second school looks at the Middle East like a giant chessboard with multiple pieces on it and all with different objectives.

According to that line of reasoning, the only way to get a peace agreement is to find out who controls whom and go to the source.

The State Department's plan to reach out to Syria is more of the former, but will only succeed if it realizes more of the latter.

Israel and Syria are two of the only countries in the Middle East that God has not graced with oil; as a result they need benefactors.

Israel has the United States. Syria, for now, relies on Iran. So, as long as Iran is paying Syria's bills, it is difficult for Syria to be an independent actor.

For example, Syria began informal negotiations with Israel last summer, with Turkey serving as the intermediary. When the Syrian foreign minister discussed these negotiations, he did so in Tehran with Iranian officials at his side. But it was clear Iran was deeply, if not overtly, involved. In the end, nothing much happened, and the negotiations were suspended after Israel's incursion into Gaza. But you can be sure that Iran was the non-present participant in every meeting.

For its own part, Iran is taking a wait and see approach with the United States. Obama has offered the hand of friendship but Ahmadinejad hasn't reciprocated. They might be waiting for their own elections in June. They might be waiting to see what goodies Obama's team will to put in his hand of friendship. They might be playing for time and running out the clock, hoping they can distract us while they continue their nuclear program, knowing that within a year or two they could have nuclear weapons.

Does this mean Obama's overture to Syria is a waste of time?

No, meeting is always a good idea. It gives you an idea what's on the other guy's mind. It could be that Syria is exploring a more independent relationship, and prepared to distance itself from Iran. It could be that Syria is Iran's stalking horse. Whatever their motives, we'll know a lot more once we start talking.

But in the Middle East negotiating isn't always the means to the end. It is often an end in itself. As long as we remember that, Hillary should head to Damascus. But please, Secretary Clinton, leave the headscarf behind.

Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. Her Web site is KTMcFarland.com.