This may seem as likely as a Dixie Chicks concert at the White House, but there is precedent for it. We did it in Afghanistan. The U.S., Russia and the five neighboring countries (including Iran) held a series of Five-Plus-Two talks devoted to preventing chaos, tribal warfare and a humanitarian disaster after the Taliban were routed. "You can't build a country if the neighbors are trying to pull it apart," says James Dobbins, a former National Security Council staff member who was part of the American delegation to these talks. "We were able to reach some basic agreements, which led to the Bonn conference, where the rules for the Hamid Karzai government were established. And, I must say, the Iranians were the most helpful of the neighbors throughout the process."
The postwar situation in Iraq is far more volatile than it was in Afghanistan. The neighbors are more contentious, but they do have a common interest preventing chaos in Iraq. "Gaining stability in Iraq will require the support of neighboring countries, including those with which we have an adversarial relationship," says former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. "Our military victory gives us the opportunity to pressure them into working out a stable future for Iraq."
The worst-case scenario of the past week that Shi'ite militants will form an Islamic republic with Iranian support is unlikely. Iraq has a significant secular middle class. The leading Iraqi ayatullah, Ali al-Sestani, believes in the separation of church and state. The Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ites have a history of mutual disdain and bloodshed. And even Iran's Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, said last week that Iraq's ethnic and religious diversity makes it an improbable candidate for an Islamic republic.
But incredibly delicate negotiations lie ahead. The proud, powerful and well-organized majority Shi'ites will have to cut a deal with the proud, well-organized, not so powerful Kurds. (If the Kurds are given an excuse to declare their independence, both Turkey and Iran countries with large, freedom-seeking Kurdish populations will be destabilized, and a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq is a good bet.) Even if there is an accord between the Shi'ites and the Kurds, the two will then have to find a place for the Sunnis, who have been the ruling class in Iraq since the Ottoman Empire. The U.S. is not well-placed to mediate these negotiations. As of last week, leading Shi'ites refused to even participate in a U.S.-led process.
The Bush Administration certainly needs to send a signal to the Islamic world that America's intentions are honorable. The six neighbors met in Saudi Arabia recently, and they were reportedly disappointed by the absence of American participation and interest.
Professional diplomats will say a summit is too ambitious. Relationships are built slowly, carefully. Groundwork must be done at the ministerial level. Diplomats are cautious, and they don't like to stage a summit unless a deal has been precooked. Fine, but a beginning must be made. The ultimate deal could be something as modest as a vague statement of mutual purpose: "We, the undersigned, agree that Iraq should continue to exist within its current borders with a federal government that represents all existing ethnic and religious interests." Or it could be as ambitious as the Afghanistan process, or even more ambitious. It is obvious that the U.S. military will have to supervise peacekeeping operations in Iraq for the next several years and equally apparent that the U.S. military is unsuited to supervise the rabid, byzantine domestic politics of the country. A Six-Plus-Two agreement that tacitly accepts the former and jointly requests the U.N. to supervise the latter may not be a bad idea. For one thing, the support of the neighborhood would limit the demands that the French and Russians might make. (An immediate Six-Plus-Two request to lift the U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq and start the oil flowing would certainly be harder to reject than a U.S.-British resolution.)
Will the Bush Administration be interested in reaching out to the likes of Syria and Iran? It did in Afghanistan. This may be a grand opportunity for a risk-taking President to play for even higher stakes in Iraq.