Monday, November 20, 2006

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.


Blogger wretchard said...

Ha'aretz reports that the bargaining has already begun.

As Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem arrived in Baghdad for a landmark visit to Iraq on Sunday, Damascus was reportedly set to demand that Washington press Israel over the issue of return of the Golan Heights,as the price of its cooperation with the Bush administration on Iraq,

Moallem is the highest ranking Syrian official to visit Iraq since the U.S.-ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and a major step toward restoring diplomatic relations, Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman said.

Media reports have said that former U.S. secretary of state James Baker's report on Iraq policy will recommend that the Bush administration engage Syria and Iran in discussions over Iraq.

11/20/2006 04:46:00 AM  
Blogger 2164th said...

I will try and recall a getting together session of nations that could agree on anything consequential. I will be back when I think of it.

The sad fact is that there are too many nations that are just fine with America being in the nation state of calamity. It suits their purposes. It contains the usual list of suspects. The President of The United States is not going to get saved by anyone or any group of nations. He will continue to run out the clock. He is incapable of firing the right people or hiring the right people. Maybe it would be helpful if he fired himself.

He hid from the truth by miss-identifying the problem with misnomers and used a strategy based on wishful thinking. He is in a historic battle with Jimmy Carter for the ignominy of his presidency.

Only one thing will save him and that is a victory. That will be impossible without a clear mission, the application of necessary force and tactics and the compliance of the American People. Enjoy the meeting.

11/20/2006 04:55:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...

Another one of the parties coming to the conference. What will they want?

Saudis to break UK ties unless criminal immunity is granted: Saudi s delivered an ultimatum that unless an inquiry into an allegedly corrupt defence deal involving a KSA Royal is dropped, diplomatic links between Britain and Saudi Arabia will be severed and intelligence co-operation over Al-Qaeda will be terminated.

11/20/2006 05:06:00 AM  
Blogger 2164th said...

Doug over at the Elephant posted this:

Doug said...
I take it all back:
Nothing is impossible for the Wizard of Hogwart

4:24 AM, November 20, 2006
You have to love Doug!

11/20/2006 05:08:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...


Actually my choice of title was motivated by David Fromkin's "A Peace to End All Peace" an account of the "peace conference" after the World War 1 that arguably poisoned the well for time to come. Among other things, it redrew the map of Iraq. It was full of the best experts of the day. TE Lawrence, Gertrude Bell etc.

This is not to say that all Peace Conferences are exercises in futility or are bad things. Hardly. But very often they are very perilous. Wars are frequently rooted in conferences. We should be careful and often aren't because of the impression that no harm can come of talking.

11/20/2006 05:14:00 AM  
Blogger Starko said...

Brilliant as usual, Wretchard.

I've also been very skeptical about Iran and Syria's "best interests" for many of the same reasons described here. It seems to me that if Iraq's current government failed, Iran would be all too happy to rule via a proxy government or at least have a pro-Iran leader fill the void. At any rate, the governing power for the vast majority of Iraq would wind up as Shia, since the vast majority of Iraq is made up of the Shia. In the short term there could be refugee crises, etc., but I fail to see compelling reasons for why it wouldn't be in Iran's best interests to see the current government fail.

Syria wouldn't want Iraq to be a bastion of Sunni radicalism, but neither do they want it to be a bastion of democracy, especially American-style democracy.

And if we suppose that Iran and Syria are willing to be honest dealers on Iraq, then what will the price be to play? As Wretchard has already pointed out, Syria wants Golan. It seems plausible that Iran would want carte blanche on their nuclear "energy" program, and perhaps some sort of security guarantee.

And what's our leverage if we come to some sort of great agreement and Syria and/or Iran don't act as honest dealers after the fact? We can't credibly threaten to change a regime by force, and depending on the future situation, the best we could hope for would likely be a redeployment of additional troops back into Iraq, or else reinvade (with the last assuming we pulled out entirely).

I don't pretend to be of the same intellect of Kissinger or Baker, but pinning all chances for an acceptable outcome on the hope that a couple of long-time thugs suddenly start dealing honestly with the US and the world seems like a dangerous gamble.

11/20/2006 05:16:00 AM  
Blogger Papa Bear said...

Let's look at the players. Syria, while 75% Sunni, is ruled by people in the Alawite sect, which is a Shiite sect.

The Syrian government is backing the (Shia-aligned) Hezbollah group in Lebanon

Iraq used to be Sunni-dominated, and is now looking like it will be Shia-dominated, and is drifting into Iran's orbit.

You've got to wonder what Syria's Sunni majority is going to think if Sunnis get massacred in neighboring Iraq, or if Hezbollah acts against Lebanon's Sunnis. It might not contribute the the Syrian regime's stability.

You also have to wonder about the Saudi reaction to having a Shiite-dominated neighbor on their northern border, and what the reaction of the Saudi (Sunni) populace to any large-scale ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Iraq.

Plus there's Sunni-dominated Pakistan on Iran's eastern border.

What the various Muslim governments are most worried about, IMHO, is that a Sunni/Shiite civil war in Iraq will fracture and destabilize the Muslim Ummah

It might possibly be to the US's advantage to have these guys too busy fighting each other to make trouble for the US

11/20/2006 05:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few thoughts:

If the justifications for regionalizing Iraq are those mentioned by Greenstock and Belgravia Dispatch, then it is absurd on its face. What they are asking for is not a strategy. They're advocating a global apology dressed up as a global apology.

But what if there was a strategy here, and not merely an act of contrition and departure? What would it look like?

Only if we plan on hanging the instability of Iraq around Iran and Syria's neck--in the event they do not cooperate at this meeting to end all meetings--would this plan make sense. If they cooperate, great, Iraq is stabilized. If they balk and act unreasonably (unreasonably by the standards of the 24 hour news, which is almost certain to happen), then it is a political chance to pin the blame on them.

Of course, in the best of all possible worlds that would precede a diplomatic campaign against these two countries, to end in sanctions and the destruction of Iran's nuclear program...

Oh, sorry, I think I feel asleep. Now what was I saying?

11/20/2006 05:54:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...

There's an interesting comment thread at Samizdata examining the KGB-like tactics of the current Russian government; poisoning people in and out of the country and all that; and some commenters wondering why the West didn't attempt a de-Bolshevization of Russia in 1989.

I'm not going to draw odious parallels between de-Nazification, de-Bolshevization and de-Baathification except to observe that there's always a price to be paid either way. Trying to de-Bolshefy Russia would have cost. Not doing it will cost too. It's now popular to say America shouldn't have de-Baathized Iraq. Maybe. But my guess is that there would be regrets down the track. There are always regrets.

11/20/2006 06:03:00 AM  
Blogger RAB said...

Why am I not surprised that there is no seat at the conference table for Isreal?

11/20/2006 06:22:00 AM  
Blogger Woman Catholic said...

rab said:

Why am I not surprised that there is no seat at the conference table for Isreal?

Because they think that would be letting us have two bites at the apple, like having one seat for Dr. Evil and another for Mini-Me.

11/20/2006 06:25:00 AM  
Blogger Wu Wei said...

> The President of The United States is not going to get saved by anyone or any group of nations. He will continue to run out the clock.

It is truly all Bush's fault. He could have answered the questions the American people have, talked to his allies in Congress, and told his aides to rip apart the conspiracy theories and ravings of the left.

Instead Bush went into his 100% inflexible, do it my way or you're a terrorist sympathizer routine. Now instead of talking to his allies in Congress, he might end up negotiating with our enemies.

Bush seems to have no middle ground. Either 100% stone wall, or 100% jelly fish.

11/20/2006 06:42:00 AM  
Blogger Wu Wei said...

> Damascus was reportedly set to demand that Washington press Israel over the issue of return of the Golan Heights,as the price of its cooperation with the Bush administration on Iraq,

Bush needs to kill this idea, that we are losing the war and so must cave to Syria and Iran, who are sending terrorists across the border.

The rumored "go long" option may finally open his eyes, that we don't need to leave or be held hostage to Iraqi internal politics by fighting their civil war.

11/20/2006 06:51:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...

Power Line thinks the only way a conference makes sense is as cover for a sell-out.

If I were a Democrat, this would make me a bit uncomfortable: Syria's Foreign Minister has joined many Democrats in calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops...

Normally, one wouldn't assume that Assad's government has our best interests at heart. But it seems that a deal may be shaping up along the following lines: Syria and Iran agree to do what they can to stop the violence (or at least stop promoting the violence) in Iraq. In exchange, they extract a timetable for our withdrawal. Their promises are unenforceable, but the purported agreement gives the U.S. a fig leaf to cover its withdrawal. In the end, the Iraqis are left to the tender mercies of al Qaeda, the "insurgents," Iran and Syria, in some unknowable combination.

I don't know if that's right but it sounds more plausible than arguing that Syria and Iran are eager to stop fueling violence in Iraq because they fear "unrest in the region". If they really were they would give themselves a timetable to stop supplying the wherewithal for mayhem.

11/20/2006 06:53:00 AM  
Blogger Woman Catholic said...

wretchard wrote:

It's now popular to say America shouldn't have de-Baathized Iraq. Maybe. But my guess is that there would be regrets down the track. There are always regrets.

REPORTER: It's said you're still using former Nazis in key positions. Despite the denazification policy.

PATTON: Well, if I'm supplied
with trained personnel I'll get rid of the Nazis. Until then, I'll use them to keep the railroads and telephones working. After all, didn't most
ordinary Nazis join the Party in about the same way Americans
become Republicans or Democrats?

11/20/2006 07:18:00 AM  
Blogger charlotte said...

The other day on another thread at BC I called the proposed negotiations with Iran and Syria a "fig leaf" approach to our quitting Iraq, but Powerline went one better and amended the term to "G string." Which is perfect, because the prospect of partnering with voracious, mendacious thugs is absurdly obscene.

We scarcely could be more naked in our dance to save face whilst losing both it and all virtue. Dare we hope there's some trick and a weapon tucked somewhere on us during the performance?

11/20/2006 07:20:00 AM  
Blogger Oengus Moonbones said...

The other option:

Declare defeat and go home.

11/20/2006 07:25:00 AM  
Blogger Wu Wei said...

Also Boris Yeltsin was a communist, but did more than anyone else to put the final nails in the Soviet Union's coffin. Almost all the first and second post-liberation leaders of the ex-Soviet states were former communists. There was no one else to lead.

11/20/2006 07:46:00 AM  
Blogger Wu Wei said...

The key question is what help would Iran provide? Put their troops in Iraq? No, they would stop the terrorists they are sending.

Bush should nail the democrats and Baker by asking them that.

11/20/2006 08:12:00 AM  
Blogger Wu Wei said...

Iran has invited the Iraqi and Syrian presidents to Tehran for a weekend summit with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to hash out ways to cooperate in curbing the runaway violence that has taken Iraq to the verge of civil war and threatens to spread through the region, four key lawmakers told The Associated Press on Monday.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has accepted the invitation and will fly to the Iranian capital Saturday, a close parliamentary associate said.

The Iranian diplomatic gambit appeared designed to upstage expected moves from Washington to include Syria and Iran in a wider regional effort to clamp off violence in Iraq, where more civilians have been killed in the first 20 days of November than in any other month since the AP began tallying the figures in April 2005.

11/20/2006 08:53:00 AM  
Blogger agmartin said...

rab said:
Why am I not surprised that there is no seat at the conference table for Isreal?

They don't have a seat at the table because they will be on the table, as the sacrifice.

11/20/2006 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger herb said...

Well of course we should enlist the Syrians to help in Iraq. They've done so well in Lebanon.

The core of the problems in the gulf is so clearly Iran. I see no solution that does not involve Iran and large explosions.

BTW a peace conference that worked was held on board USS Missouri in August 1945. Its not the participants or the agenda or the process, its the conditions precedent.

11/20/2006 12:47:00 PM  

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