Talking to Iran About Iraq: A Non-Starter for Bush

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Frederic Druart,a Belgian homeless for six years, steps out of a tent set up along the Canal Saint Martin in Paris.

Explaining the report of his Iraq Study Group to Congress on Thursday, former Secretary of State James Baker stressed that its recommendations need to be taken as a whole, rather than cherry-picked. "I hope we don't treat this like a fruit salad, saying, 'I like this, but I don't like that,'" Baker told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It's a comprehensive strategy designed to deal with the problems in Iraq, but also to deal with other problems in the region. These are interdependent recommendations."

President Bush plainly had other ideas, telling a press conference he was sure Baker and Lee Hamilton didn't expect him to embrace all of their recommendations. Bush made clear, for example, that he has no intention of following the Baker-Hamilton proposal for a rapid move to engage Iran and Syria in a process aimed at stabilizing Iraq. Instead, he simply reiterated his Administration's preconditions for talking to those two nations: Iran must first suspend its uranium enrichment activities, Bush said, while Syria would have to stop interfering in Lebanon.

It's not hard to see why Bush would balk at many of the key prescriptions of the report, since they would require him to abandon some key foreign policy positions he has held throughout his presidency. And without any changes in that policy, there is little likelihood that the regional powers whose help is being sought will feel much like cooperating.

U.S. needs Iranian and Syrian cooperation right now a lot more than either of those countries need to ingratiate themselves with Washington. So the U.S. is not in any position to set preconditions for seeking their help in Iraq. They may even be inclined to set conditions of their own for such cooperation. On the question of talking to Tehran and Damascus, moreover, President Bush certainly has the backing of a number of legislators from both sides of the aisle, who have questioned whether Iran and Syria would have any inclination to help out the U.S. in Iraq. Baker would agree that they're not about to help out just to be nice, but his commission — which interviewed senior figures in both regimes — believes their cooperation can be won on the basis of enlightened self-interest. Still, they would need an incentive to cooperate, which would necessitate the sort of diplomatic quid pro quo on other issues that would stick in the craw of President Bush.

Israeli leaders, meanwhile, along with their most vocal supporters on Capitol Hill, are alarmed both at the prospect of a U.S. diplomatic dance with Iran and Syria, and by the ISG's assertion that prospects for success in Iraq and elsewhere in the region depend on Washington's ability to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, commenting on the report Thursday, told reporters: "The attempt to create linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue — we have a different view."

The Bush Administration throughout its tenure has carefully avoided putting any pressure on Israel to resume negotiations with the Palestinians in search of a political settlement to the conflict, instead simply endorsing the Israeli claim that "there is no Palestinian partner" and focusing largely on the question of Israeli security. And it has strongly backed and even encouraged Israel's refusal to talk to Syria about the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967.

The Baker-Hamilton study sees unconditional U.S. support for Israel as poisoning the prospects for U.S. progress in the region, because it generates such deep-seated ill will toward America in Arab public opinion that it becomes increasingly difficult for even friendly Arab regimes to lend support to Washington. The 9/11 Commission made a similar point, noting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key source of hostility toward the U.S. that is exploited by extremist elements. Still, not much has changed in the Administration's policy positions. And despite the urgent pleas of such key U.S. allies as Jordan's King Abdullah — and even Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair — for a speedy resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there would likely be a strong backlash on Capitol Hill against any move to tie progress in Iraq to progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

So the regional strategy advocated by the Baker-Hamilton group looks, if not quite dead on arrival, at least destined for the back burner. But that regional strategy is a critical component of the package, precisely because the Iraq Study Group has plainly shown that the Bush Administration's plan to unilaterally transform the Middle East through the application of force has failed. Acting alone, the U.S. appears unable to create a stable post-Saddam Iraq, and regional cooperation with regimes distasteful to the U.S. but nonetheless able to influence events is essential.

These regional actors, of course, are the same ones the Bush Administration hoped would be swept away by the democratic tsunami Iraq was supposed to unleash. To embrace the Baker-Hamilton strategy, President Bush would have to abandon some key foreign policy positions to which he has been deeply wedded throughout his presidency. Critics, including much of the Republican "realist" old-guard personified by Baker, would argue that this is simply a matter of acknowledging reality. But the President will find plenty of support from conservative voices, along with those across the spectrum who most fervently back Israel and see Iran as a primary threat, for ignoring the advice of the "realists." Despite the flurry of discussion over a new policy on Iraq, chances are that once the dust settles, that policy may not look very different the current one.