Fight and Talk
PRESIDENT BUSH promised in his speech Wednesday night to "use America's full diplomatic resources" in support of his new plan to stabilize Iraq. But the tour of the region that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is beginning today looks like a sideshow. Ms. Rice will talk with Israelis and Palestinians and meet with ministers from Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states; her idea, she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, is "to work with those governments that share our idea of where the Middle East should be going." Since that excludes two of Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria, as well as the two countries that now stand in the way of progress in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon -- again, Iran and Syria -- it's hard to see how her diplomacy can accomplish much.
Indeed, President Bush's speech gave the impression that military steps have priority in the administration's regional policy. The president said he had ordered another carrier group to the area; that Patriot air defense systems would be deployed "to reassure our friends and allies"; and that the United States "will seek out and destroy the networks" supported by Iran and Syria that provide "advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq." Hours after he spoke, U.S. forces raided an Iranian government office in Irbil, northern Iraq.
Some of this makes sense. Iran and Syria are engaged in their own offensive across the Middle East: In addition to supporting attacks on Americans in Iraq, they are trying to overthrow the pro-Western Lebanese government and are supporting terrorism carried out by the Palestinian Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The first response to that cannot be offers of "engagement"; some pushing back is also needed. Ms. Rice argued yesterday, as she has before, that a Bush administration offer of bilateral talks with Iran before it freezes uranium enrichment would undermine the multilateral effort to stop its nuclear program, while Syria could be expected to make unacceptable demands about Lebanon.
It is nevertheless the case, as former secretary of state James A. Baker III has pointed out, that diplomacy consists of talking to enemies as well as friends. It's even possible to talk to enemies while using sanctions or force against them; certainly the Iranians and Syrians do it.
There are ways in which the administration could step up its diplomatic efforts on Iraq without falling into the traps that Ms. Rice described. The Iraqi government has proposed a regional conference in Baghdad, hoping to include all of its neighbors; the United States should support that idea and join in. Both Ms. Rice and Mr. Bush mentioned the Iraq International Compact, an ongoing U.N.-brokered initiative under which the Iraqi government is to commit itself to economic reforms in exchange for international aid. Iran and Syria already have participated in meetings on the compact, along with the United States. It wouldn't be hard to beef up and expand that process to cover more issues, such as guarantees for Iraq's minority groups and steps to prevent violence from spreading outside the country -- or deterring outside intervention.
Regional diplomacy will not solve Iraq's problems. An Israeli-Palestinian settlement will not cause sectarian warriors in Baghdad to disarm. But given the seriousness of the situation, the administration is foolish not to use every resource at its disposal. Mr. Bush is already pursuing strategies on the ground in Iraq that look like long shots; he should be willing to take more diplomatic chances, as well.