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A Better Way

Authors: The Honorable Morton I. Abramowitz, Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation, and Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
February 9, 2007
Wall Street Journal


Not many in Washington think President Bush’s military surge will solve Iraq, but there is plenty of enthusiasm for a diplomatic surge. The Iraq Study Group, much of Congress, think-tankers and media pundits urge diplomacy as the way out. “Give diplomacy a chance,” they say. “Talk to everybody, especially the bad guys, and we’ll find common ground.” The general enthusiasm is not surprising, given the decline of diplomacy during the Bush administration.

We should be wary of quick fixes. Military or diplomatic surges reflecting desperation rarely turn out as hoped. Diplomacy cannot resolve Iraq’s internal conflicts, though it may help lubricate a deal reached by Iraqis, or an American exit from Iraq. Region-wide diplomacy can help over the long term, if based on a sound policy to re-establish American power in the Mideast, Gulf and world-wide.

But diplomacy by itself rarely changes the facts on the ground, and right now, the facts appear to be a nonfunctioning central government, half the country sunk in civil/sectarian war, and Sunnis leaving Iraq in droves. Despite optimistic rhetoric about diplomacy, it is virtually certain that the neighbors won’t step into this maelstrom, rescue the U.S. and compel their various Iraqi allies to buy a deal. At this point, no diplomatic enthusiast has explained convincingly what incentives Syriaand Iran have to help the U.S.

Nor do the neighbors have the power to compel a settlement. Advocates of a diplomatic solution say the U.S. can do in Iraq what it did in Bosnia with the Dayton Accords. But Iraq is not Bosnia. At Dayton, the U.S. and eventually Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic himself wanted the war to end, and, most importantly, had the muscle to compel the parties to accept the territorial and political divisions produced by war. In Iraq, the U.S. is not able to enforce its will, and no neighbor, or group within Iraq, has the power that Milosevic had in Bosnia.

Regional diplomacy might prove useful if the Iraqis gain momentum toward a power-sharing deal, but can’t make tough calls without outside aid and pressure. At that point, the neighbors could help. But as for Arab-Israeli talks helping to settle Iraq—that’s an illusion.

Iraqi leaders don’t care much about the Palestinians. They see them as past supporters of Saddam Hussein. Where serious American efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal could help is not in Iraq, but in tamping down further inroads by Iran among Arab terrorist groups.

In fact, this is where the real value of U.S. diplomacy comes in. Iranians and terrorists can stoke hatred and wars; only the U.S. can lead the parties toward peace agreements and economic development. But to do this, Washington needs a coherent policy before it can have an effective diplomacy. The Bush team first has to figure out realistically how to change the balance of incentives and pain for Iran and Syria, and then translate this into diplomacy.

Right now, the U.S. is isolated, widely seen as without a coherent policy, and therefore without much power. Yet the ultimate paradox is that the U.S., not Iran, remains the major power in the area.

Diplomacy with Iran will take patience and the non-hysterical application of American power. Iran is a politically divided and economically poor country; it is not a regional superpower. Most Iranians don’t like their present political leaders and are open to the U.S. connection. Without giving up, or giving in on key security concerns, Washington can let the great majority of Iranians in and out of government see the benefits of better relations with the U.S., and allow that thought to settle in. As for Syria, it causes a lot of trouble in the region, but its leaders, with their own internal problems, also have demonstrated they can act on national self-interest when Washington gives them that choice.

If the U.S. puts the policy pieces in place—working toward a realistic outcome inIraq, toning down bellicose rhetoric, pursuing Arab-Israeli talks, and letting America’s economic and political power do the talking—most nations will rally to us. That’s what happened in Asia during the darkest days of Vietnam. President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger put together triangular diplomacy with Chinaand the Soviet Union, giving the U.S. new global diplomatic leverage, and they reaffirmed American military presence and security commitments to Asian friends. East Asian countries knew they needed America for their peace and prosperity, and quickly moved behind Washington. Though different from Asia, Arab leaders also know they need America.

Probably, the U.S. would have done better to try to establish and maintain diplomatic contacts with friends and enemies in the region all along. But too much water and blood have now passed under the bridge for such wishful thinking.

Jumping into diplomacy without a careful weighing of underlying policy and power could strengthen the bargaining hands of the tyrannical regimes, confuse and unsettle friends, and put all the pressure for making concessions on the U.S. Better for the moment to let the Saudis continue sounding out the parties, and spend the next months figuring out exactly what to do in Iraq, how to use diplomacy to support that, and how to re-establish U.S. diplomatic power in that nasty part of the world.

Mr. Abramowitz is a senior fellow of the Century Foundation. Mr. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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