Holbrooke: Regional Conference on Iraq ‘Very Good Idea’

Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard C. Holbrooke says a Bosnia-like regional conference on Iraq is a “very good idea” but that “none of the major factors that occurred in Bosnia would apply here.”

November 6, 2006

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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One of the strongest advocates for shifting U.S. strategy on Iraq has been former Ambassador to the UN Richard C. Holbrooke. Among the new approaches Holbrooke supports is a regional conference to bring in Iraq’s neighbors to help provide security and avoid a civil war in the country. In that sense, the plan bears some similarity to the Dayton Accords, the agreement Holbrooke crafted to end the Bosnian war in 1995. The accords were reached by a conference grouping the leaders of Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia.

Holbrooke says a regional conference is a “very good idea,” but that “none of the major factors that occurred in Bosnia would apply here.”

Would you be in favor of a regional conference on Iraq?

I think a regional conference is a very good idea, but whether it results in anything will depend on who participates. This war is being waged on the ground by ferocious forces which aren’t necessarily going to be much interested in what regional and international players say. Still, I think it’s worth trying.

Would you invite countries like Iran and Syria to the conference?

If you don’t have Iran and Syria, you’re not going to have a conference of any value. They are bordering states, they have a vested stake, they’re part of the problem, they exacerbate the problem, and you either do it right or you don’t do it at all. In the case of Afghanistan, at the Bonn meetings of 2002, the Iranians were not only present, they were an important part of the fact that that conference reached a successful outcome, which was to install [President Hamid] Karzai as a widely accepted leader.

What lessons can we learn from the Bosnia example?

Well, Bosnia’s quite different. When we stepped in, in 1995, the war was going on for four years without us. We came in clean, bombed [Bosnian Serb forces], got their attention, summoned them, and forced them to an agreement. None of the major factors that occurred in Bosnia would apply here. The one similarity obviously is that you get all the parties together, lock them up, in [Bosnia’s] case behind a high barbed wire fence at the Wright-Patterson Air Base outsideDayton, Ohio, and push them into a prolonged negotiation until they all agree. But the kind of leverage we had in Bosnia is long since gone in Iraq. In Bosnia, in Dayton, we had the threat of bombing them. In Iraq, the only threat that we have left is the threat that we’ll withdraw. It’s quite a different kind of thing.

If you were to suggest convening a regional conference, under whose auspices should it be convened? Would you recommend the United Nations?

The United Nations has unique convening power, whether one likes them or not, and only they could pull this together, but you’d also need the support of the Arab League and the OIC, the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Do you expect the upcoming report by former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III to recommend convening such a conference?

I have no idea what they’re going to recommend.

In general, though, what role do you think Iraq’s neighbors should play in the country’s future, and I’m thinking in particular of Iran and Syria?

And Turkey.

And Turkey.

Well, each of those three countries plus Saudi Arabia has a vested interest, and they’re not identical in the region, but none of them want a situation out of control which could destabilize them. So that’s the common thread around which you have to build an agreement.

One thing you have called for, Mr. Ambassador, is for U.S. forces to be redeployed to northern Iraq.

That’s right.

Is that move aimed at Turkey specifically?

Yes. The Turks came very close six, eight weeks ago, to invading northern Iraq to prevent what they thought were excessive moves toward independence by the Kurds. This has been an obsession for Turkey for over eighty years. And I think the United States should put some forces—doesn’t need to be a lot, two brigades might be enough—into northern Iraq as a way of reducing the chances of a Turkish-Kurdish war, number one; number two, keeping an over-the-horizon capability in case we pull back from the rest of Iraq in order to go after terrorists, and third, frankly, it would allow President Bush to say he wasn’t withdrawing from all of Iraq if in fact he’s driven out.

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