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The high cost of dealing with the enemy

FOR CERTAIN members of the foreign policy cognoscenti, there is no problem so intractable that it cannot be resolved through dialogue -- preferably multilateral, except in those situations (North Korea, for example) in which bilateral talks are for some reason preferred. Thus, with Iraq sinking deeper into the blood-drenched waters of civil strife, we hear growing calls for an international conference to come to the rescue. The model is said to be the 1989 Taif Accord that ended Lebanon’s civil war -- reached, conveniently enough, when uber troubleshooter James A. Baker III was secretary of State. This ignores two major differences between Lebanon then and Iraq today.

First, by 1989, all sides in Lebanon had been exhausted by 14 years of fighting that had claimed at least 150,000 lives. In Iraq, by contrast, the killing is still in its early stages, and there is no sign that Shiite or Sunni bloodlust will abate anytime soon.

Second, for all the exhaustion of the combatants, the Taif Accord worked largely because Syrian troops policed a cease-fire. Even if we negotiate such an accord in Iraq, who will play the role of peacekeeper? It is doubtful that any of Iraq’s neighbors will volunteer. None of them wants to be caught in the crossfire. Nor would most Iraqis want to be occupied by Iranian or Syrian troops. That leaves as the only plausible candidate the American soldiers already there.

Even now, their success or failure in quelling Iraq’s violence depends largely on the willingness of indigenous factions to strike a political bargain and stick by it. That process could perhaps be encouraged by neighboring states, but it could hardly be imposed from the outside.

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The combatants in Iraq’s civil war are much less dependent on external sponsors than many previous guerrilla groups, such as the Viet Cong or the Afghan mujahedin. A U.S. intelligence report leaked to the New York Times finds that the Iraq insurgents have become self-sustaining financially, making $70 million to $200 million a year from oil smuggling, kidnapping and other rackets.

Sure, Syria and Iran abet the violence, helping Sunni and Shiite extremists, respectively. But that does not mean they could end the killing, which has an internal logic of its own. And even if they could, why would they?

Proponents of “engaging” Iran and Syria argue that it’s against their interests to see chaos next door. As opposed to what? They probably think they’re better off today than they would be if they had a strong and potentially hostile Iraq on their border, especially one allied with the United States. They’re happy to see the U.S. bled dry and Iraq immobilized as a regional player.

Given that mind-set, we would have to offer Syria and Iran some mighty enticing carrots to get them to cooperate in a U.S.-led rescue effort for Iraq. Tehran would most likely demand, at a minimum, a guarantee that we would do nothing to foster regime change in Iran or stop its nuclear program.

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Syrian President Bashar Assad, for his part, would most likely seek an end to the international tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri because any trial would probably implicate Syrian officials. Naturally, Assad would also demand that no independent investigation be conducted into last week’s assassination of Lebanese Cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, which likewise has Syrian fingerprints all over it. In addition, he would seek to reestablish Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, which Syria refuses to admit is a separate country. Oh, and for dessert, he’d also like the Golan Heights back from Israel.

Are these wishes that Washington could or should accommodate? Do we want to betray the democratic revolution in Lebanon? Do we want to give Iran’s loony president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, carte blanche to build nuclear weapons? And all in return for dubious promises that may not make any difference in Iraq?

Hard to believe, but those who advocate negotiations under such circumstances are known as “realists.” A real realist would realize that Syria and Iran are only likely to accommodate the U.S. when they’re afraid of us. Iran played a constructive role in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and Syria scuttled out of Lebanon in 2005 under strong pressure. Now, however, we would be bargaining from a position of weakness, not strength.

We are on the verge of defeat in Iraq. Our enemies have no interest in bailing us out, unless the cost is prohibitive.

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