The Meeting to End All Meetings
Over and over the public is told. Syria and Iran fear a divided, chaotic Iraq. Here's Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's special envoy for Iraq in 2003-2004 writing in the Washington Post enlarging on the theme of the regional desire for stability.
There has to be a new initiative. The United States, wounded though it is on this issue, has to shake off denial and pessimism and achieve what only a superpower can. The internal and regional dimensions of the Iraq tragedy must be brought together in a conference that reaches beyond the narrow objectives of financial burden-sharing. The binding substance is Gulf security.
All the neighbors of Iraq must be invited in; even Iran understands that a shattered Iraq is more likely to return eventually to a military autocracy. So must other potential contributors and stakeholders: Egypt, the five permanent members of the Security Council, the United Nations as a convening authority.
The obvious question that springs from these paragraphs is, if Iran and Syria had such a vital interest in a peaceful Iraq then why have they bent every effort to destabilize it? Back to that later. Greenstock continues:
The United States is the country that must take the initiative. While it has the hardest corner to turn, it also has the strength to succeed in this effort. But if Washington tries to dominate the agenda for such a conference, it will not work. Even at such a vital point, the United States needs to take a step back.
One might be forgiven for understanding the preceding as saying that America, more than any other country in the region, needs a peaceful Iraq. And therefore it must, as the most needy, take the initiative. But at the conference, America the most needy must not ask for what it wants. Otherwise the other countries might stay away, including the ones in the region who are deeply concerned about an unstable Iraq. But though Washington must take the initiative, it must not overly push for what it wants. Greenstock says, "but if Washington tries to dominate the agenda for such a conference, it will not work". So who gets to write the script? Everyone is invited to submit their proposal in a process called "bottom-up".
The structure of the conference should be both international and bottom up. Countries in the region must be allowed to present their own agendas, even if they do not convince others for long. Senior U.N. practitioners must be invited to make their own experienced judgments. A new dynamic could be created and a new hope offered, with no participant able to say truthfully that the collapse of Iraq is in its particular interest.
Unless I have seriously misunderstood what the paragraph above says, the agenda of such an initiative as Greenstock hopes to convene, and which "only a superpower" can afford will consist of whatever demands countries in the region see fit to present. Just to keep things fair and orderly, "Senior U.N. practitioners" will keep things on track with their wisdom. And "with no participant able to say truthfully that the collapse of Iraq is in its particular interest", hopefully a solution will emerge. Why exactly it should be in the interests of Iran, a country which expended hundreds of thousands of lives in a war against Iraq, and has expended a considerable amount of effort to undermine a post-Saddam State should want it to survive is not entirely obvious. But I digress.
Greenstock's article, perhaps because of the way it was written, very nearly edits out the American interest, as expressed in a warning not to "dominate the agenda". But it entirely omits any discussion of the role of Iraq. Remember Iraq? A country with an elected -- who else invited to the conference, including the UN practitioners can say the same -- and internationally recognized government?
The Belgravia Dispatch, perhaps thinking along parallel lines, has a very similar sounding proposal for regionalizing the solution to Iraq. "the Democrats (not to mention quite a few non-ideological Republicans) will find engaging Syria and Iran in high-level, direct talks of interest". To its credit the Belgravia Dispatch does not forget the Iraqis, but mentions them only as groups and not as a state. "In addition, an attempt to provide deeper autonomy to the main Iraqi groups in relatively secure, organized manner will appeal to leading Democratic foreign policy players like Richard Holbrooke who have been influenced by Les Gelb’s calls for an Iraqi confederation." And perhaps that is because the implicit subject of any such regional conference is the disposition of Iraq. All the same, the main thrust is similar to Greenstock's, and here it is:
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.
Again we hear that it is not in any of the neighboring country's interests to destabilize Iraq. And on this premise we base the hopes of the conference. But that is not enough. It is almost as important to declare the process of "staying the course" dead. And here perhaps is the reason why the Iraqi government is given such short shrift. It is entirely the product of "staying the course", the end result of countinsurgence, elections, constitutional ratifications and parliamentary governance of the last three years. To include the Iraqi government in a conference would be to legitimize it, and by extension the Bush policy of the last 3 years. And that must on no account be done. That removed, we come to the glue which is to bind all the conference participants together. A deep desire to prevent the unrest spilling over into other countries, like Syria and Iran. The Belgravia Dispatch goes on:
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. ... 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.
It's a brilliant exposition, marred only by its obvious and glaring internal contradictions. Riyadh is to be persuaded into "minimizing the insurgent flow from Saudi Arabia into Iraq"; Syria to seal its borders to infiltrators; Teheran will see fit to stop "radical elements in Teheran" from "providing arms and materiel to the worst of the Shi'a militias". In a word they are to going to be asked to stop what they have been doing, because what they have been doing is not in their interests, and because it is not in their best interests they are going to stop what they have been doing. Grand if it can be done, but nothing in the exposition provides any confidence that it has a ghost of a chance of being achieved.
In the first place, it is hard to see the unrest in Iraq as anything but a policy objective of both Teheran and Damascus. It is their handiwork. The material support provided to Shi'ite militias does not come from "radical elements in Teheran", it comes from the Iranian organs of state themselves. Under these circumstances, the principal danger inherent in the regional conferences proposed by Greenstock and the Belgravia Dispatch is that it may rapidly degenerate into a carving up of Iraq. A division of the spoils with Iran taking southern Iraq, Syria taking Anbar and parts of the North, and Turkey left alone in the room with Kurdistan. And everyone with a slug of American money. Why would any of the regional participants want anything different from what they have seemingly been working so hard to achieve?
Still, a regional conference could prove useful if there is a bipartisan consensus to win in Iraq. And what it means to win. What Greenstock and Belgravia Dispatch are assuredly correct in saying there has never been a united policy on Iraq. Here's Greenstock making the point that there was never a widely accepted alliance policy on Iraq. " Yet the United States and Britain have never attempted a truly comprehensive policy on Iraq." Here's Belgravia making the same point about the absence of a consensus domestic policy.
The challenge that James Baker and Lee Hamilton (the co-chairs of the so-called Iraq Study Group (“ISG”)) must now grapple with is how to forge a bipartisan consensus on Iraq policy. Without one, the Commission will not be able to issue a recommendation that meets with the approval of all the Commission members (who range from Democrats like Leon Panetta and Vernon Jordan, on the one hand, to Republicans like Ed Meese and Alan Simpson on the other). The goal is clear: recommend a credible and actionable game plan on how to move forward, while helping a divided American nation find broad, if elusive, consensus regarding what to do next in Iraq.
One might argue that the failure of the Democratic Party to advance an alternative policy in Iraq is one of the great scandals of the last four years. It has a constituted a veto by omission of Administration foreign policy. By their own admission the Democrats are only just beginning to think about how they could do better than GWB, and the proposal for a regional conference is part of that belated search for a solution. But however belated, a bipartisan policy is clearly necessary in the coming months and years. The basic question that policy must settle is what constitutes the American goal in Iraq within the context of the War on Terror? Once that answer is known than any subsequent action -- sending more men, fewer men, embarking on an regional conference or no conference at all, changes in tactics, etc can measured in relation to that goal. Without a bipartisan policy on the War nothing can be judged within the the framework of the national interest.
It is a truism from repetition that America cannot afford to watch Iraq descend into chaos. But why exactly? If both Syria and Iran, and possibly Saudi Arabia are not only willing to countenance chaos in Iraq, but abet it why should it such a threat to America? Advocates of "Responsible Redeployment" are perfectly willing to accept a chaotic Iraq after the troops are withdrawn. So why is chaos so intolerable to America that it is worth paying every one off to avoid it? One answer is that America cannot bear the moral cost that chaos will incur. Or that as the world's System Administrator America cannot afford to shut down a country in the Middle East. The real answer is that America cannot afford chaos in Iraq because it would represent a victory for Iran and a humiliation for the US. Any conference aimed at effectively handing a victory to the Iranians would be as pointless as putting out a fire in your hair with a hammer in order to feel better. Some gain, at least, must be in view.
Therefore any regional conference must contain elements which can dissuade Damascus and Teheran from their campaign of subversion that do not include mere appeals to their "fear of unrest" in Iraq. If the "fear of unrest" in Iraq holds as much terror to Damascus as "fear of unrest" in Lebanon it will be slim reed indeed upon which to base the conference. A regional conference of the kind envisioned by Greenstock can only prosper if a credible incentives exist to persuade the parties fueling the violence to cease and desist. A bipartisan policy on Iraq is the sine qua non -- not the judgment of "senior UN practitioners" -- with which to beat back the wolves and give the people of Iraq something of a future and dignity in their lives.