An Unlikely Offensive

Sunday, December 10, 2006

THE IRAQ Study Group's recommendations for shifting U.S. military tactics in the war are specific, focused and aimed at incremental improvement over the next few months; they are also close to what the Pentagon and Iraqi government already were hoping to achieve. By contrast, the group's diplomatic strategy is sweeping -- and untethered to reality. The Bush administration could and should adopt some version of the military plan, though it would be right to ignore the unrealistic timetable attached to it. But to embrace the group's proposed "New Diplomatic Offensive" would be to suppose a Middle East very different from what's on the ground.

Start with the supposition that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is somehow central to ending the chaos in Iraq. In fact, even if the two-state solution sought by the Bush administration were achieved, it's difficult to imagine how or why that would cause Sunnis and Shiites to cease their sectarian war in Baghdad or the Baathist-al Qaeda insurgency to stand down. It's no doubt true, as study group chairmen James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton have said, that every Arab leader they met told them that an Israeli-Arab settlement must be the first priority. But the princes and dictators of Riyadh, Cairo and Amman have been delivering that tired line to American envoys for decades: It is their favorite excuse for failing to support U.S. initiatives and for refusing to reform their own moribund autocracies. In fact, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Iraqi neighbors have vital interests in the ongoing Iraqi power struggle. They can and should be moved to help stop the slide toward anarchy on their borders whether or not peace breaks out in Jerusalem.

Mr. Baker, who pursued a Mideast diplomatic strategy 15 years ago focused in large part on Syria, also conjectures that its regime can be "flipped," so that it abandons its current alliance with Iran and support for extremist movements in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The problem with his theory is that since 1991 Syria has acquired a new leader: Bashar al-Assad is very different from his father, Hafez, with whom Mr. Baker negotiated. Bashar al-Assad, along with several senior members of his retinue, has been personally implicated in a United Nations investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Judging from its recent actions, Syria's top diplomatic priority is not recovering the Golan Heights from Israel -- as Mr. Baker supposes -- but stopping the U.N. investigation and undermining Lebanon's pro-Western democratic government. European envoys who have met Mr. Assad in recent weeks dismiss the possibility of a dramatic reversal of his policies.

Parts of the Baker-Hamilton diplomatic agenda make good sense, including its suggestion for a contact group of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria. The Iraqi government already has embraced the notion, by proposing a regional conference in Baghdad, and President Bush would be wise to get on board. Syria and Iran could remain adversaries of the United States across the region yet still play a role in a group where the pressing common interest is avoiding a regional sectarian war.

By the same token, the administration ought to continue its efforts to promote the creation of a Palestinian government capable of undertaking the peace negotiations that Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert offered last month. It should also continue to press hard for U.N. sanctions against Iran's nuclear program and seek sanctions against Syria if it continues to flout U.N. resolutions calling for it to cease its meddling in Lebanon. All these steps could strengthen Arab moderates and U.S. allies around the region. But they won't solve the problems in Iraq.

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