All Talk, No Action?

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Why won't we talk? To foreign policy "realists" it has become practically an article of faith: to get out of Iraq, the U.S. must negotiate with Iran and Syria. "I personally believe in talking to your enemies," former Secretary of State James Baker said last month. "Neither the Syrians and the Iranians want a chaotic maybe there is some potential for getting something other than opposition from those countries." In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations Tuesday, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called on the Bush Administration to convene a "public international conference" of Iraq's neighbors, such as the "Turks, the Saudis, Egyptians, the Emirates, the Jordanians, but also the Syrians and Iranians" with the aim of exacting their pledges to help stabilize Iraq. Iraq's President, Jalal Talabani has gone so far as to predict that "if Iran and Syria were involved in helping the Iraqi people it will be the beginning of the end of terrorism and securing Iraq within months."

What makes the idea of negotiating with Iran and Syria so appealing now is that, unlike just about every other would-be balm for the metastasizing plague of Iraq, this one hasn't actually been tried yet. The Bush Administration refuses to hold serious talks with either Tehran or Damascus, two regimes it has at various stages threatened to depose. It's hard to overstate the utter myopia of the U.S.'s closed-door policy, since both Syria and Iran have signaled a willingness to talk about Iraq and the U.S. needs all the help it can get. We've done business with far worse regimes over the years -- think Stalin's Russia, Mao's China and Milosevic's Serbia -- and still had success.

But don't get your hopes up. Baker is right: there's nothing to be lost from talking to our enemies. But there's almost no chance they'll be of much help getting us out of Iraq.

First, despite the impression often created by the Administration, it's far from clear how much influence the two countries have over the belligerents in Iraq. The U.S. believes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has allowed Iraqi Baathists to take refuge inside his borders and send money to the Sunni insurgency, which is probably true. The U.S. also believes that Syria has allowed foreign fighters to cross its borders to take up arms against U.S. forces. That's also probably true. But the total number of foreign fighters in Iraq at any one time has never exceeded more than a few hundred; and there's just as much evidence that they are coming in through Jordan and Saudi Arabia, two erstwhile U.S. allies. Besides, the bulk of the jihadis now joining the insurgency are Iraqis, not foreigners. And so at best, Damascus could help contain the Sunni insurgency, not stop it.

Iran, for its part, does have considerable ties to major Shi'ite players, notably SCIRI, the biggest Shiite political party, and the Badr Corps, its armed wing. But Tehran's ability to rein in the most noxious and destructive Shi'ite force in Iraq today, Moqtada al-Sadr, is much less certain. Indeed, Iran's clients and Moqtada al-Sadr have fundamentally divergent views on the future shape of Iraq: while SCIRI backs the creation of an autonomous, theocratic Shi'ite region in southern Iraq, al-Sadr insists on maintaining a strong central government in Baghdad. (The better to crush the Sunnis with.) And al-Sadr's control over his Mahdi Army militia, which is responsible for many of the worst sectarian excesses, may be weaker than we think: recent reports have portrayed his followers more as splintered gangs of thugs than a unified fighting force.

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