THE DIPLOMACY OF GRASPING AT STRAWS: TRIAL BALLONS OVER IRAQ
"All the above aside, however, I will stress again in these cyber-pages that a dramatic move to regionalize our approach to the Iraq issue is desperately needed. Not only will this signal to the American public that ‘stay the course’ is over and done with, it will also convince skeptical European capitals and chanceries that we are truly moving in a new direction, not merely providing a fig-leaf for a sequenced withdrawal that does not constitute a convincing new plan (offering Europeans and others non-discriminatory access to reconstruction bids is also advisable on this score). In my view, and as I’ve previously stated, we should convene a major Iraq Contact Group consisting of the Americans, British, Germans, French, Russians and Chinese—with full participation by each of Iraq’s neighbors (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait), as well as other critical Arab and/or Islamic countries as observers to the Contact Group (Egypt and Morocco, for instance). To represent the U.S. at the Six-Plus-Six Contact Group we should appoint some of the very best envoys the country has at its disposal.
One critical priority must be addressing directly the wider regional tensions Iraq has exacerbated so that the conflict does not spill over to other countries. There might well be surprising areas of common interest among many of the regional Contact Group members on this score. A variety of goals will need to be tackled, and the diplomatic might of the entire key “Big Six” of the Contact Group must be marshaled to 1) build on Syria’s (still not convincing enough) efforts to make the Iraqi-Syrian border less porous, 2) continue to assist Riyadh in minimizing insurgent flow from Saudi Arabia into Iraq, 3) bolstering via diplomatic and other efforts countries facing growing religious radicalism from within like Jordan and, less noticed, Syria, 4) engage Iran full-bore on the Iraq agenda (to include as necessary other issues of mutual concern on a discrete case by case basis) to assure that the most radical elements in Teheran are dissuaded from providing arms and materiel to the worst of the Shi’a militias (lately groups splintering away from Moktada-al-Sadr), 5) dialogue more closely with Turkey to assure that her vital interests are not being imperiled by Kurdish resurgence, and 6) get Arab countries more involved generally with the situation in Iraq (greater Arab influence, in terms of bolstering the Sunni position, might well help serve to contain some of Iran’s growing influence, while also perhaps reducing the appeal of the ‘alliance of convenience’ between Syria and Iran, the former 70% Sunni, the latter a predominately Shi’a country). This is an impartial list, but the point is clear: a massive, full-scale international effort comprising all the great powers and the key regional actors must be convened to, around the clock, tackle the Iraq crisis.
Many readers ask: what will we gain from direct discussions with Syria and Iran? I can think of several actions, without limitation, that the Syrians could take if we extended various carrots to them (such as facilitating a return to negotations with the Israelis over the Golan Heights issue), including: 1) making the Syrian-Iraqi border less porous, 2) reducing Iraqi Baath money floating about Syrian banks and thus ultimately getting to insurgents, 3) cutting down on former deviationist-type Iraqi Baath who fled to Syria during Saddam's regime trying to cut a non-Saddamite, neo-Baath resurgence in Iraq, and 4) inducing Damascus to be more cooperative with Maliki's government so as to help stabilize the national government in Baghdad. As for the Iranians, it's no secret they are hedging their bets and, not only supporting Shi'a militias, but also Sunni insurgents. Similar inducements (mixed with the specter of punitive actions) could get the Iranians to reduce support to some of the groups causing us the worst problems, whether Sunni or Shi'a. Neither Damascus nor Teheran want a total meltdown in Iraq--which would also involve large refugee flows to both their countries--countries with their own somewhat disgruntled minorities (Azeris in Iran) or indeed majorities (Sunnis in Syria). In diplomacy, as in life, you talk to your opponents on occasion to get results. Hope and 'they know what to do' isn't a plan." (see: Gregory Djerejian www.belgraviadispatch.com)
I have chosen to focus on a fellow online commentator, the eminent and intelligent, knowledgeable and fellow realpolitiker, Mr. Gregory Djerejian, because in his much more intelligent fashion, he summarizes the prevailing wisdom of the most highlighted fact among the Washington pays legal: that a regional conference, with the participation of all the internal Iraqi factions: Sunni, Shiite, Kurd, et cetera, plus all of the regional powers: Persia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, et cetera, and, the already existing 'contact group' dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue: Russia, the USA, France, UK, the EU and the UN, will be able to convene and miraculously able to resolve, or go towards resolving the internal unrest and conflict in Iraq, by in the words of Henry Kissinger, internationalizing the conflict (see: the Council on Foreign Relations 'Daily Brief' for 20 November in www.cfr.org). The point here is that like all such exercises at grasping at straws, the current obsession of viewing a 'regional conference', as some type of panacea is simply that: an illusion and nothing more. Per se, there is nothing wrong with attempting the regional conference route. And, of course, there is much to be said for the Americans talking with both the Syrians and the Persians, both about Iraq and regional questions in general. However, the idea that by mere talking with such regional powers, or that 'drawing in' such outside powers will resolve the Iraq imbroglio is nonsensical.
This is so for two reasons: one, that the strife affecting Iraq is internal, and, is not the plaything of outside powers, however much our neo-conservative ideologues would like to think otherwise. With a very long fuse, the violence in Iraq which has occurred since the fall of Saddam Hussein, has almost entirely internal origins. A classical case in fact of der primat der innenpolitik. While it is true that outside powers, such as Syria and Persia have added a few timbers to the flames, nothing suggests that their activities, have had substantial influence or causation therein; two, recent examples of the regional conference approach shows what can, and what cannot be done in instances such as the current conflict in Iraq: the first (positive) example is the Bonn Conference of 2001-2002, dealing with Afghanistan. Here was a conference where 'all' of the internal factions, the regional players, the UN, EU and the USA, met and decided on policy for a 'new' Afghanistan. All that is except of course for the Taliban, who had just been ousted from power. And, of course, it is precisely the ousted Taliban, who in the last couple of years have caused much in the way of violence in that poor country recently. The seond (negative) example, was the Rambouillet Conference of 1999, which attempted to resolve the problem of Kosovo. Notwithstanding all the same ingredients, as what is being proposed for Iraq, the conference failed, due to the fact that the two warring parties: Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians were unable to come to an agreement. NATO's war with Serbia soon followed (for Richard Holbrooke's less than positive view of the conference idea as panacea, see the Council on Foreign Relations Daily Analysis for 14th November: 'The Buzz over the Baker Report' in www.cfr.org).
Consequently, in the absence of an internal settlement between Sunni and Shiite, what is the prognosis for a resolution of the Iraq problem, via the regional conference route? I for one predict much journalist hyperbole and political rhetoric, but nothing of substance, id est, utter failure. The insurgency and the sectarian conflict will go on, unabated. The alternatives will swing back to essentially what they are in reality at present: a) the Bush approach of 'more of the same'; b) the Senator McCain approach of investing more troops: perhaps two to three divisions worth in order to damp down the conflict, and ultimately allow Iraq time to stabilize itself; c) some type of scheduled, negotiated withdrawal. Of the three alternatives outlined here: the first has been tried and and found wanting, both Internationally, and by the American people. The second alternative, while it perhaps had some logic to it, and, which I myself still favor to some degree (as does by the bye: Djerejian himself to an extent), seems for both, internal American political reasons, and, for Iraqi political reasons as well, a non-starter at this point in time. The last alternative, appears to possess the power of novelty and popularity. Erroneously, but perhaps not surprisingly, many both in Iraq, in the Near East and Internationally, are of the mistaken belief that with the withdrawal of Anglo-American forces, 'all will be well'. Indeed, the Syrian Foreign Minister visiting Iraq today, said as much (see Jonathan Steel's article in the Guardian in www.guardian.co.uk). Of course for those who remember their history a bit, may well recall, similar remarks were made that the withdrawal of the British from the Indian Sub-continent in 1947-1948 and from Palestine at the same time, would have positive results for the situation on the ground. Something which subsequent events did not bear out in the least....Something which I am afraid will prove to be all too true in the case of Iraq as well if a policy of 'scuttle' is pursued.