Across the Bay

Sunday, December 17, 2006

No talks with Iran and Syria

There have been a number of sane and sober editorials in recent days on the latest fad of "talks" with Syria and such. Two good ones appeared in the LA Times and the Washington Post.

Today's LA Times ran a very good op-ed by David Rivkin and Lee Casey arguing against talks with Iran and Syria.

The thing I was most glad to see was their critique of the insane idea that "you lose nothing by trying" which has been floating around among the so-called "reality-based" commentators (God I hate that condescending term that often masks a bunch of pretentious clueless buffoons).

Rivkin and Casey counter: "Unfortunately, this argument is fallacious. In fact, there is a great deal to lose."

They explain:

But negotiations are unpredictable, and timing is all-important; they should never be commenced without realistic, identifiable goals and a clear idea of what compromises are acceptable. Any notion that the U.S. could open talks with Syria or Iran without being prepared to give something (in return for something) is wrongheaded and dishonest. The very act of negotiating (at least of negotiating in good faith) implies a willingness to strike a deal, to accept a quid pro quo.

The questions, therefore, for Baker and others who support immediate, unconditional, direct talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Iranian mullahs are what exactly does the U.S. hope to gain from their assistance in Iraq, and what would it be prepared to give in return? Those questions have not been answered, and it is unlikely that they will be anytime soon.

At the same time, the costs of talking to Damascus and Tehran are clear. For example, the U.S. and France have diligently worked to isolate Syria, primarily because of its suspected involvement in the assassination of senior Lebanese officials. Engaging Damascus diplomatically would instantly relegitimize the Assad regime.

Similarly, the U.S. has spent years building a coalition within the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran over its nuclear weapons program, insisting that Iran must suspend uranium enrichment activities as a precondition for any serious diplomatic dialogue. Abandoning this posture precipitously, and opening an unconditional dialogue, would be humiliating and would irrevocably undermine all of this diplomatic spade work.

It's amazing to see that people who screamed and yelled about multilateralism, international law, working with our Arab allies, etc. don't stop for a second to see how this "engagement" actually destroys all of the above without gaining anything! The Syrians naturally (and that includes their flacks in the media and the blogosphere) have been spinning everything in that direction! And these people call themselves "realists" and "diplomats." They haven't a clue about either concept.

In fact, I was glad to see the authors highlight another important issue. We often heard that "talking itself shouldn't be seen as a reward." Well, I happen to think that it is a reward (pace luminaries such as Richard Haass), and guess what, the Syrians do too! Assad even inadvertently admitted it in his latest typically pathetic and thuggish interview with La Repubblica.

Rivkin and Casey put it as follows:

Ironically, the Iraq Study Group, for all of its emphasis on diplomacy, vastly underestimates the forces that diplomatic discourse can unleash. Diplomacy is a serious exercise, capable of producing either good or bad consequences.

Jaw-jaw matters a great deal, especially when conducted by a great power like the U.S. This explains why most rogue regimes are eager to dance a diplomatic minuet with the U.S., whether they acknowledge it or not. They grasp that once the U.S. begins to talk to them, it implicitly legitimizes at least some of their positions and impedes the building of regional and global coalitions against them.

Other than an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, it is difficult to conceive a course of action more perilous to our interests in the Middle East than seeking the Baker-style assistance of Iran and Syria.
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What does not make sense is to open a dialogue with two of Washington's bitterest enemies without a clear notion of whether their help in Iraq would be worth the price in the long run.

In the case of Syria, every gullible envoy dispatched there (Scheinwald, Steinmeier, Nelson, etc.) has received the same consistent message (which, had these people read my blog, would have known without going to Damascus!): Lebanon is ours and ours alone, period. Kill the international tribunal. Oh and we will not cut ties with Hamas or Hezbollah, let alone Iran. (Not to mention the other messages, like the murder of Pierre Gemayel).

So, based on the logic laid out by Rivkin and Casey, what is there to "talk" about?!

Henry Kissinger also knows what Syria's real objectives are and that its "help" in Iraq would be marginal: "Syria is primarily concerned with Lebanon and Palestine. The Syrian contribution in Iraq, one way or the other, is essentially marginal."

As for negotiations with Iran, Kissinger says fine in theory, but doing it through the Iraq issue is not smart and counterproductive:

I do not think focusing it on Iraq is the happiest way to do it, because that's the region where they may think -- and I actually think exaggeratedly -- that they hold all the cards and that they're doing us a favor.

We need to talk to them about the nuclear problem. We need to talk to them about their role in the region and about the need to avoid what would head into a confrontation if present trends continue.

That would be an important subject for a conversation with Iran. But not when they -- when they feel so arrogant and self-confident. Then to focus it on Iraq is not the happiest subject.

Kissinger adds that first they need to decide whether they're a nation (the basis of "realism") or an ideological cause. Once you go through all that, once again you're faced with little basis for serious "talks" (as defined by Rivkin and Casey, again pace the diplomatic "genius" of people like Haass), terrible timing, and no real value.

The WaPo editorial said it well:

But bilateral "engagement" is hardly the most important answer to the reckless regional offensive by the Iranian-Syrian alliance.

On the contrary: What is urgently needed is decisive steps by the United States and its allies to counter the extremists and to force them to pay a price for their aggression.
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"Realism" in the Middle East means understanding that Syria and Iran won't stop waging war against the United States and its allies unless they are given reasons to fear they might lose.

With all that in mind, perhaps it's not a coincidence then that the latest EU statement sounded an awful lot like the Bush administration policy on Iran and Syria!

Addendum: Read this related and most excellent piece by Barry Rubin.

Update: Even Assad's people know that Syria's "help" in Iraq would be negligeable (never mind what thug-caricature Imad Mustapha says, he's a mere functionary). Here's Sami Moubayed admitting it (Hat tip, Michele). I've said it before, it's a big scam, and it's clear the administration and the State Department (see Sec. Rice's comments) realize it. Everyone knows what Bashar is.