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Regional Middle East Conference?

Subject:        Regional Middle East Conference?
Date:   Mon, 27 Nov 2006 17:52:22 EST
From:  Ray Close

Dear Friends:

    These are my personal predictions and expectations as we approach
the announcement of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group (ISG)
recommendations.   I wish it were a more optimistic picture.

    There is a seemingly endless list of Catch-22 situations in Iraq,
all increasingly intertwined with similarly intractable problems
throughout the entire Middle East, to which there simply are no
satisfactory answers. Nothing has brought home to me the extent and the
complexity of those problems more than the experience of working for
almost seven months now with the research committee supporting the James
Baker - Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group in Washington.

   _ In my private opinion_, the ten ISG commissioners are approaching
a consensus that there is no way the United States, alone or in concert
with the present Iraqi central government, can influence decisively the
domestic problems in Iraq to a degree that would meet President Bush’s
criteria for “success” (the new euphemism for the conditions that were,
until very recently, referred to as “victory”.) Further, I believe that
the ISG’s recommendations, while not specifically acknowledging this
discouragement, will reflect a common agreement  to recast the whole
Iraq problem in terms that they must all realize full well the president
and vice president will find unacceptable. Anticipating this unwelcome
result, I expect that the White House will begin, even before the ISG’s
report is ready, to downplay the importance of its recommendations in
order to justify acceptance of alternative strategies that are being
prepared concurrently by the Defense Department and the NSC.  Those, I
am certain, will continue to promote the delusion that “success” is
still a realistic objective in Iraq. Such obstinate denial of reality
will keep the policy waters muddied, the Iraqi Government adrift and
divided, and the violence continuing unabated, until the United States
has lost the last vestiges of its political credibility and military
leverage.  The initiative will at that point have passed completely to
the radical elements all over the region whose influence we most fear.
There goes the Middle East.

    Fasten your seat belts, as Bette Davis would say, because it’s
going to be a bumpy ride.

    Barring the sudden intervention of unforeseen new factors (it is
too soon to evaluate the potential repercussions of the Jumayl
assassination in Beirut, for example), my private guess is that Baker
and Hamilton will soon announce a set of recommendations of which the
following is, in my opinion at least, the most important and potentially
the most controversial:

    Encourage the holding of a regional conference to enlist the
support of neighboring states in establishing stability in Iraq. This
would be an attempt on the part of the United States to diffuse the Iraq
problem by subsuming it within a new regional “grand design” --- a
general objective that I have advocated very strongly right from the
beginning.   All principal states of the region would be invited,
particularly including Iran and Syria ---_ and Israel_.

    For reasons discussed at greater length below, this initiative
could succeed only if the United States and Israel were to convey to
prospective attendees_ in advance_ their readiness in principle to make
significant concessions and accommodations in return for comparable
concessions and accommodations from Iran and Syria, by themselves and on
behalf of their allies in Lebanon and Palestine._ There do exist_
potential compromises that would give all those parties a sense of
having protected their vital interests and of having achieved positive
advantages for their respective causes while still facilitating enough
progress toward regional stability to satisfy America's minimum
remaining goals and expectations._ To persuade all the parties of those
realities will be a supreme test of diplomacy and political courage,
without doubt.  Nothing less, however, will avert the train wreck toward
which we are currently headed under full steam_.)

    This strategy would undeniably present a huge political challenges
to both the United States and Israel, in particular.   Nevertheless, I
believe the strongest and most forward-looking members if the
Baker-Hamilton Commission, acutely aware of the immensity of these
obstacles, but acting in full recognition of the absence of any other
available course of action that could lead to satisfactory resolution of
the Iraq imbroglio, are prepared to recommend that effort.

    To underline my own recognition of the difficulties we are talking
about, let me try enumerating some of them._ There is, let me  repeat,
no simple or easy way to escape the looming catastrophe that was set in
motion by the invasion of Iraq in March 2003._ _ The situation is so
dire that the “impossible” has become an urgent necessity._

    Note:  The ISG is also obviously going to address the question of
when and under what conditions the United States will start withdrawing
troops from Iraq. Some kind of withdrawal plan is a minimum insisted
upon by the majority of Democratic members of the Commission and some of
the Republicans, as well.  They are apparently still far from agreement
on this issue, which seems to be taking on more and more partisan
political overtones.   I have reached no conclusion myself on that
question because I do not consider myself qualified to form an opinion.
I’m sticking to a subject where I feel confident of my own judgment.

*R**egarding the regional conference idea:*

    Here, I start from a position of full agreement with Daniel Levy,
an Israeli analyst (and former Oslo negotiator), who makes the point in
a recent article in Washington Monthly that “The much-neglected
Israeli-Arab conflict is as central to Middle East stability as the Iraq
war is.  The United States can’t truly address the latter without taking
on the former, too.  A regional policy makeover that fails to make these
connections is unlikely to create the tipping point that will move the
Middle East from extremism towards moderation.”  (There are many other
Israelis and American friends of Israel who agree with Mr. Levy that the
alternative is an ever-increasing isolation and endangerment of Israel.
This realization has gained much more currency in Israel since the
recent summer war in Lebanon and the looming probability of Iran’s
acquisition of nuclear weapons.)

         A new and comprehensive “regional policy makeover”  is a grand
idea, but presents many serious complications when one gets down to the
details of actual implementation. _ 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._ I believe that a
fair and equitable solution to that problem, in which each interested
party would be made to feel that its most vital concerns were recognized
and accommodated, would be welcomed and supported by the Europeans,
Russians, Chinese, the great majority of Arab states, and even Iran and
Syria --- if structured with imagination and political courage, and if
objectivity and a commitment to fairness were demonstrated by the
president of the United States. Those who would not lend their active
support would at least be reluctant to oppose a strategy that promised
justice in Palestine as a foundation for broader peace and stability in
other troubled parts of the Middle East._ I see no other way to achieve
the essential objective of “internationalizing” the process of
stabilizing the region ---  or of creating conditions conducive to
extricating the United States from the quagmire in Iraq._ Most
importantly, I believe (with no specific evidence to back up my hunch)
that several key members of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group hold the
same opinion.

    Let’s consider the following immediately daunting obstacles to the
convocation of a regional conference:

    Who would call the conference? Protocol demands that it should be
the Iraqi Government, but in fact there is no entity in Baghdad today
that commands enough authority to speak for all three primary
competitive political constituencies in the country.  For example, will
the leaders of the Iraqi Sunni community allow a Shia-dominated regime
to speak for them at a conference of regional states?  The answer is
obviously no.

    Who would set the agenda?  What inducements would have to be
offered to Iran and Syria to encourage them to be cooperative?  Would
they not insist, at a minimum, that the agenda include consideration of
their own demands and expectations?  Otherwise, what advantage would
they see in accepting a proposal that originated in Washington and was
apparently designed to advance American interests, not theirs? The
participation of Syria and Iran in the formulation of a new order in the
region is an undeniably beneficial objective.  But the price that the
United States would have to pay in order to reach accommodation with
Iran and Syria is one that I can’t imagine President Bush tolerating at
this juncture, even to achieve the primary objective of extricating
himself from Iraq.

    Under what set of conditions would Israel agree to attend? At a
minimum, we can be sure that Israel would demand an assurance from the
United States in advance that the Arab states and Iran would not be
permitted to divert and disrupt the primary purposes of the conference.
Israel will not attend the party without a bodyguard, in other words. If
America plays that role, our adversaries will exploit that relationship
to complicate and perhaps successfully isolate both Israel and the
United States from other present and potential allies in the area,
including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc. If that dangerous situation is to be
averted, then both Israel and the United States must come to a regional
conference prepared to address fundamental questions of Israel-Arab
relations, which in turn means that both Israel and the United States
would have to be prepared to make substantial modifications of their
respective positions on vital issues. _ Unless an American president is
willing to take us down that road, no regional conference will produce
results that would alleviate our overall Middle East problems  --- or,
for that matter, provide Israel with long-term security._ (In case
anyone suggests that Israel need not be invited, or if invited need not
attend, please consider the odds  of Iran, Syria and Palestine agreeing
to cooperate in finding a satisfactory way to end the American
occupation of Iraq while Israel continues to occupy large areas of
Palestine.  Forget it.)

    How about the Palestinians? What delegation could represent them
before a unity government is agreed between Hamas leaders and Abu Mazen?
Why would any Palestinian delegation be willing to help America
extricate itself gracefully from Iraq while the US was maintaining a
policy of political isolation and economic strangulation in Palestine?
(Note:  If the ISG suggests a regional conference to which Israel would
not be invited, that could only be because Israel and its supporters in
the United States intervened to protect Israel from involvement in a
process in which it would inevitably have to make significant
concessions and compromises.  Holding a regional conference without
Israeli representation, however, makes no sense whatsoever.)

    How about Lebanon? What kind of delegation could Beirut send while
Hizballah and other pro-Syria and pro-Iran elements are challenging the
authority of the Siniora government? It is difficult to imagine how
either Syria or Iran would adopt favorable positions with respect to
Iraq if, at the same time, they are expected to curtail support of their
surrogate allies in Lebanon. (Under no circumstances, obviously, could
the US agree to restore Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon in return for
Syrian cooperation on the Iraq question. That’s another non-starter.
Perhaps the US will have to put pressure on Israel to make territorial
concessions in the Golan. _ It all depends on what price America and
Israel are willing to pay to achieve long-term peace and stability.
Simple as that._)

    In short, the proposal to call a regional conference sounds good,
but does not stand up very well to hard analysis._ With George W. Bush
in the White House, I cannot see a single prospective participant in a
regional conference of this kind (particularly the United States and
Israel) coming to the table prepared to make the compromises and
concessions that will be essential to reaching a constructive outcome of
US policy in Iraq._  Success was achieved at Madrid because everyone
wanted essentially the same things.  Here, everyone wants something very
different. (Note: Grand conferences to resolve major international
conflicts have always been convened either by the victors, or by the
surviving victims, but never by the original perpetrators of the
problem.  Here, the United States started the fire, and is belatedly
calling the other local inhabitants of the village to help extinguish
the flames. The neighbors might participate to save their own property
from destruction, but they will not arrive prepared to make any
sacrifices to rescue the party that they consider to be the original

   _ However_,_ all the foregoing having been said, I believe that the
ISG will nevertheless recommend the convocation of a regional
conference, and I believe that this course of action, despite the
tremendous obstacles that it poses, is the only course that holds any
realistic chance of achieving success. Tragically, I think George W.
Bush will not agree even to give it a sporting chance_.

    So even a recommendation of last resort also contains many elements
of a classic Catch-22.
    As I say, fasten your seat belts!

*_Summary_*:  No simple or convenient solutions.  Very little hope of
success.  But no better ideas to work with.
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