James Baker is known for being from the “realist” school of foreign policy, but if the Iraq Study Group’s report is any indication, he’s about as much of a realist as Baron Munchhausen.
Munchausen was an 18th century German aristocrat famous for telling tall tales about such feats as riding cannonballs and traveling to the moon. Baker, meanwhile, used the Iraq Study Group’s report as a forum to recount tall tales about when he ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Okay, not quite. But that’s what one would be led to believe by the report’s nostalgic references to Baker’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East following the first Gulf War. The commission, in a complete non sequitur, recommends that the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the early 1990s should be the model for a broader diplomatic effort to persuade Iraq’s neighbors (including Iran and Syria) to help bring peace and stability to the war-torn nation.
Specifically, the report proposes a series of meetings “to negotiate peace as was done at the Madrid Conference in 1991” (which Baker organized when he was Secretary of State). These meetings, overseen by the international community, would be “between Israel and Lebanon and Syria on the one hand, and Israel and Palestinians (who acknowledge Israel’s right to exist) on the other.” The fact that such a parenthetical statement is needed says it all.
It’s pure fantasy to believe that Israel could negotiate a settlement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that would not be subject to the veto of Hamas, which can derail talks either through terrorism or the exercising of political power it gained after its substantial election victory earlier this year. Back in 1991, Israel agreed to the Madrid meetings under the condition that no representatives of the PLO would be present, but the Palestinian delegation got around this by bringing an “advisor” who was in constant contact with the terrorist group, which ran the show from behind the scenes. Hamas, meanwhile, helped disrupt the talks in December 1992 by kidnapping and murdering an Israeli border policeman on the fifth anniversary of the start of the first intifada.
But the report’s magical thinking does not end there. It recommends negotiating a settlement in which Syria agrees to small details such as: helping convince Hamas to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, ending its meddling in Lebanon and its aid to Hezbollah, fully cooperating with investigations into political assassinations in Lebanon and blocking Iran from using Syrian territory to transport weapons to Hezbollah.
Israel, meanwhile, will be expected to return the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a larger “land for peace” deal in the spirit of United Nations Resolution 242. The problem is that the resolution was passed in the wake of the 1967 war and its meaning has been debated ever since. Palestinians believe it means Israel should return to its pre-1967 borders, Israelis believe it means they can keep some territory captured during the Six Day War to maintain defensible borders. Whatever one’s position on this debate, it’s unlikely that after nearly 40 years of fighting and diplomacy, the issue will be resolved in time to make a difference in Iraq.
But even if, by some miracle, the Arab-Israeli conflict were resolved tomorrow, it’s hard to see how that would have any impact on what is going on inside Iraq. According to the report, sectarian violence between the Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias “has become the principal challenge to stability” and “causes the largest number of civilian casualties.” Al Qaeda wants to instigate the sectarian war and drive the U.S. out of Iraq. Regional players such as Iran and Syria, meanwhile, want to gain influence over different regions of the country. If peace were achieved between Israel and the Palestinians, would Sunnis suddenly be content to be in the minority? Would Syrians and Iranians have less interest in gaining power in Iraq?
In addition to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the commission suggests other “possible incentives” to win over Iran and Syria. Among them are: “The continuing role of the United States in preventing the Taliban from destabilizing Afghanistan.” To be considered an incentive, a party has to receive something it otherwise would not have. It’s hard to imagine Iran’s leaders living in fear that the U.S. may stop fighting the Taliban. Other incentives include entrance into the World Trade Organization and “enhanced diplomatic relations with the United States.” However, the report also says that negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program should be conducted separately, along the path they are proceeding down now. If that’s the case, why should the U.S. use all of its bargaining chips on getting Iran to cooperate on Iraq?
Of course, it’s ridiculous to expect Iran to cooperate with the U.S. on Iraq when our interests are diametrically opposed. In the report, the commission argues repeatedly that a chaotic Iraq is not in Iran’s interest. But were Iran to help stabilize Iraq, it would only do so in exchange for extending its own power and influence — not to help America build a democracy. Just last week, when Iraqi President Jalal Talabani crawled to Iran for help, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei said that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was a prerequisite to securing the country.
The Iraq Study Group’s report does acknowledge that “Our limited contacts with Iran’s government lead us to believe that its leaders are likely to say they will not participate in diplomatic efforts to support stability in Iraq,” but that does not prevent the commission from concluding that “as one of Iraq’s neighbors Iran should be asked to assume its responsibility…”
If this is what “realism” looks like, I’d prefer to pin my hopes on Santa Claus coming to Baghdad this Christmas and bringing peace and joy to the world.
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