What an International Conference Can Do

The Washington Post

The announcement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is calling two international conferences of all Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to discuss the country's future could mark a watershed. Whatever happens on the battlefields, Iraq will have to rejoin the global community in some manner. Otherwise, its internal tensions will continue to tempt outside intervention, and these can be resisted most effectively on the basis of agreed-upon principles. The conflicting interests of neighbors must be restrained by a combination of a balance of power and an agreed legitimacy to provide an international sanction.

The two conferences will mark an important step in dealing with a striking anomaly of contemporary international politics. The United States is widely condemned for its conduct of the Iraq war, while no country has been prepared to seriously explore the political implications of foreseeable outcomes. Yet none will remain impervious. If America fails to achieve its immediate objectives – if terrorist camps or terrorist regimes emerge on Iraqi soil, backed by its huge oil resources – no country with a significant Muslim population will be able to escape the consequences: not India, with the second-largest Muslim population in the world; nor Indonesia, with the largest; not Turkey, already contending with incursions from the Kurdish portion of Iraq and its own fundamentalist factions; nor Malaysia, Pakistan or any Western European nation; nor Russia, with its Muslim south; nor, in the end, China.

If the Iraq war culminates in a nuclear Iran (as an indirect consequence) and an Islamic fundamentalism that can claim to have ejected Russia from Afghanistan and America from Iraq, a period of extreme turbulence verging on chaos is unavoidable, and it will not be confined to the Middle East. A threat to global oil supplies would have a shattering impact on the world economy, especially the economies of industrialized countries. Peace, stability and democracy in Iraq are a global challenge even though none of the potential victims has been required to contribute ideas, much less been enlisted in the quest for a political solution.

Until now, what has most frequently been debated in the United States is whether diplomacy should be invoked at all. The Bush administration, following one strain of American attitudes regarding diplomacy, for a long time implied that it was not ready to negotiate over Iraq – especially not with Iran and Syria, which are accused of fomenting the conflict.

Critics of the administration have insisted on an immediate resort to diplomacy without always defining what they mean by it. According to them, military operations should be reduced or stopped as the price for entering into the diplomatic phase. Escalation, however temporary, is proscribed. Such attitudes caused America, at the start of negotiations to end both the Korean and Vietnam wars, to accept a cease-fire in Korea and a bombing halt in Vietnam. Prolonged deadlock was the consequence.

From the beginning of the controversy in 2002 about whether to use force against Iraq and afterward, I have supported the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but I have also argued that no outcome in the middle of the Arab world could rest on imposition by military force alone. Diplomacy should always have been an integral part of Iraq strategy. The announcement of the Iraq conferences is therefore an essential remedy.

Much of the debate over ending the war has focused on the desirability of bilateral negotiations with Syria and Iran as key to an Iraqi settlement. Willingness to negotiate will not be sufficient, however, unless the principles and objectives of both sides can be brought into the range of tolerable compromise. This will be a formidable task.

Syria and Iran are weak countries that find themselves temporarily strong. The United States remains a superpower even though it has maneuvered itself into an extremely complicated and potentially disadvantageous position. But this has not altered the long-term power relationships. Wise leaders on all sides are needed to establish an international order that provides security to all participants and respect to all religions and ethnic groups.

Concerning Iraq, only a few objectives of the United States, Syria and Iran can be fulfilled via bilateral negotiations. Syria's role in Iraq, for better or worse, is limited to better control of its border against infiltration. Syria's prime, long-term national objectives are to recover its dominant influence in Lebanon and the return of the Golan Heights from Israel. The United States, having only recently been the principal party in ejecting Syrian troops from Lebanon, is in no position to offer Syria a dominant position there. Syria may well be uneasy about the growing impact of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, but it likes American dominance even less; indeed, it uses arms deliveries to Hezbollah precisely to undermine U.S. influence in Beirut.

A return of the Golan Heights to Syria may be facilitated by a Syrian-American dialogue, since the parties were close to an agreement during the Clinton administration. But it would require Israeli-Syrian negotiation, perhaps under American aegis, toward a separate peace agreement. This presupposes acceptance of Israel by Hamas, whose headquarters are in Damascus.

Comparable limits exist regarding bilateral negotiations with Iran about Iraq. The problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions should remain in the existing multilateral framework via the U.N. Security Council. An agenda for a bilateral negotiation over Iraq that excludes Sunnis would appear in the Sunni world as a potential American-Iranian condominium or the beginning of American abandonment. It may thus trigger a rush by America's allies in the region to acquiesce in Iranian hegemony.

The key to improved U.S.-Iranian relations is resolution of the nuclear issue. If significant progress occurs, bilateral talks can then serve to define principles for a return to normalcy. Iran's leaders must be brought to understand that America, even in what appears to be a period of domestic division, will not allow hostile hegemony over a region so central to the well-being of the industrialized world. Taunting a superpower is dangerous, and constructive alternatives exist if Iran seeks national rather than jihadist or imperial objectives. The recent modification of Iran's diplomatic tone cannot have been uninfluenced by demonstrations of U.S. determination and power.

The proposed international conferences provide the best framework for a serious diplomacy over Iraq. Iraq's neighbors are too much at odds with each other to be able to establish the psychological or the security equilibrium for a regional conference by themselves. Participation of the Security Council's permanent members, as well as Egypt as a nearby state, is vital. As confidence is gained, key Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia, major oil consumers such as Germany and Japan, and countries with a vast stake in the outcome, like India, should be involved. The potential participants have many conflicting interests but also have a common interest in preventing jihadist fanaticism from driving the world toward an ever-widening conflict. The conferences should be the occasion, as well, to go beyond the warring factions in Iraq toward a stable energy supply. They would be the best framework for a transition from American military occupation. Paradoxically, they may also prove the best framework for bilateral discussions with Syria and Iran.

An invitation to a conference is, of course, a first step in a long process, which should be viewed in terms of three concentric circles: the first would be a negotiation between the Iraqi parties; the next would be the proposed regional conferences; the ultimate peace process would then be concluded in the wider conference detailed above. It is symbolically important that the Iraqi government call for the conferences as it has done, but the conferences cannot be concluded without consistent and strong American leadership.

U.S. military policy in Iraq must be related to such a diplomatic vision. America does not have the luxury to determine its actions entirely by their relevance to domestic considerations. Unilateral withdrawal on fixed timetables, unrelated to local conditions, is incompatible with the diplomacy described here.

The willingness of other countries to participate in such an effort depends importantly on their assessment of the equilibrium in the Middle East after the end of the war in Iraq. A successful diplomacy requires that America remain relevant and available in support of a coherent regional policy.

Three centuries ago, the nations of Europe tore themselves apart in a religious war until they organized an international conference to set rules of international order. Europe was left prostrate and drained. The world has a comparable challenge today. Will it seize it while it still has a margin of decision through diplomacy, or must it wait until exhaustion and despair leave no alternative?

© 2007 Tribune Media Services Inc.