SHOULD THE United States negotiate directly with Syria and Iran over the future of Iraq? These countries are sworn enemies of the U.S., governed by relentlessly repressive governments.
Yet the Iraq Study Group argued that the U.S. has often negotiated with unsavory regimes, including the Soviet government during the Cold War, and that skillful American diplomacy can steer discussions away from matters on which the U.S. absolutely will not compromise -- such as Iran's nuclear weapons program -- and toward Iraq, where we might be able to work together. According to this argument, even if negotiations with Damascus and Tehran fail, there is nothing to be lost by talking.
Unfortunately, this argument is fallacious. In fact, there is a great deal to lose.
Winston Churchill's aphorism that "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war" has been cited often, but it was not representative of his policy while in office. In fact, despite pressure from his Cabinet, Churchill refused in 1940 to negotiate with Italy's Benito Mussolini, fearing Britain's will to prosecute a tough war against Germany would be undermined by hopes of a separate peace with one of Adolf Hitler's allies.
Indeed, history is replete with examples of well-intentioned negotiations gone wrong -- ill-judged at the outset or so badly managed in practice that they inflamed rather than calmed tensions. The most famous is the tragic spectacle of British and French appeasement of Hitler during the 1930s, but U.S. Cold War diplomacy is also rich with instances of talks that backfired.
During the September 1959 U.S.-Soviet summit, for example, President Eisenhower fed Nikita Khrushchev's vanity, calling him a great leader and hosting the Soviet delegation at Camp David. Eisenhower also agreed to hold another summit in 1960 to be largely devoted to Germany, which was a major Cold War flashpoint and a key Soviet diplomatic priority.
From this, Moscow concluded that Washington was overawed by the growing Soviet military power and that it could be persuaded to abandon Berlin. To encourage this, Khrushchev intensified his efforts, through the use of boastful rhetoric and doctored intelligence, to deceive the U.S. into believing that Soviet nuclear forces were much larger than American forces -- the famous "missile bluff." Eisenhower's diplomacy raised hopes to unrealistic levels, tensions actually increased and NATO's cohesion was weakened.
The June 1961 Kennedy-Khrushchev summit in Vienna was equally unhelpful, convincing the Soviet leader that the young new president was weak. As a result, Moscow increased pressure on Berlin and, in 1962, took an enormous strategic gamble by surreptitiously installing missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev's miscalculation, rooted in his misreading of American diplomacy, brought the world closer to nuclear war than it has been before or since.
Of course, there are times when talking to an enemy makes good sense. When he was secretary of State, Iraq Study Group Co-Chairman James A. Baker III himself ably conducted a successful dialogue with Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s.
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.
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.
This does not mean that the United States should not talk to reprehensible regimes, or to its enemies, when such talks are in the national interest -- as they sometimes are. Although the Bush administration has often declared that, as a matter of principle, it would eschew negotiations with the world's rogues and despots, its bark has been far worse than its bite. Indeed, its attempts to use multilateral diplomacy to persuade Iran and North Korea to curb their nuclear ambitions reflect traditional realpolitik considerations. This approach has merit because its multilateral framework limits the ability of Iran and North Korea to split the U.S. from the rest of the world, and because concrete concessions are being sought upfront from both of these countries.
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.