Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Hold the line! Love isn't always on time:
Eli reports that the Baker commission is going to put Israel on the table. Or, rather, an adviser to the commission, ex-CIA man Ray Close, recognizes that the most realistic way to secure support from Iran and Syria on Iraq is to indicate that distance exists between us and Israel:

Mr. Close writes that he expects the study group to urge President Bush to convene a regional conference "to enlist the support of neighboring states in establishing stability in Iraq." Among the participants in the regional conference should be "all principal states of the region," including Iran, Syria, and Israel. The inclusion of Israel, according to Mr. Close, is crucial because it will provide the only leverage by which Iran and Syria can be enticed to help stabilize Iraq.

"To have any realistic chance of success, I believe that the process would have to start with the announcement of a major initiative, promoted and vigorously supported by the United States, to reach a comprehensive resolution to the Israel-Arab crisis through a process of reasonable compromise and accommodation between Israel and its Arab neighbors," he writes.

First things first. I'd prefer it if Close, or anybody who talks about such matters, could helpfully define terms like "major initiative," "comprehensive resolution to the Israel-Arab crisis" and "regional [Iraq] conference." That is, it's helpful to establish what it is we want out of these talks -- or whether we merely want a fig leaf before we draw down troops. For instance, on the issue of sectarian reconciliation in Iraq -- or, if we want to lower our expectations, a ceasefire in the civil war -- the relevant actors are people like Moqtada Sadr and Harith al-Dhari, not Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia or Israel. Regional involvement in Iraq is real, but not especially significant from the perspective of delivering a ceasefire/reconciliation. Not that I think this can be done at all, but still.

With that in background, can't we leave Israel out of this? Consider the magnitude of what we're talking about: a) delivering a measure of stability to a multi-tiered sectarian conflict in which only the Kurds have clear leaders who can guarantee deliverability of a settlement, on the extremely long odds one can be reached; b) involving the U.S.'s oft-stated two regional enemies in an effort to bail our asses out, and one of those very enemies believes the U.S. is about to bomb it; and now, c) to convince those enemies to help out, we're going to put the region's most intractible and incendiary problem on the table, when the definition of "comprehensive resolution" means very, very different things to us (something akin to a two-state solution loosely based around the '67 borders) and to Iran (a world without Israel). Sound like a solid basis for strategy?

Of course, if the goal isn't to actually have this conference produce an Iraq settlement, but instead to provide a fig leaf for our exit, then Close is off scot-free. We should, in that case, tell everybody that everything is on the table, and then blame them when it all goes pear-shaped. Oh, wait. That's a fantasy no one will believe.

One last thing. Close is absolutely right to say that if we want to involve Iran and Syria in whatever our Iraq plans are, the price is going to be steep, and "steep" here probably means pressuring Israel. He deserves credit for laying out the price of a regional conference, rather than invoking it as a cost-free totem. I'd have preferred it if he went several steps further, but he's already a few steps beyond most.

If there's a broader point to be divined here, it's that the U.S. simply has to decide what's most important in the Middle East. An Iranian nuclear program or a promise for Iran not to interfere in Iraq? A viable, unitary Saudi Arabia or a Shiite crescent in the Middle East that will balance it? An end to Syrian support for the insurgency or the return of Pax Syriana in Lebanon? Etc, etc. Figure out what you most want, what you can live with, what you can't, and act accordingly. If some futile conference is worth selling out Israel, then by all means, sell out Israel. If not, think twice. To be really clear about this, if I believed I could solve the Iraq problem; and I further believed the cost of not solving it was a first-order national-security crisis for the U.S.; and I further believed the price of solving it is selling out Israel; then I'd think you have to sell out Israel. If not, no.
--Spencer Ackerman