This Is What We’ve Been Waiting For?

The false premise of the Iraq Study Group Report.

Here’s a question that the Baker-Hamilton committee report didn’t completely address: What happens if its new approach doesn’t work?

Because all signs show that it will not. The examples are almost endless, especially when it comes to the much-hyped “regional approach” to the Iraq conflict. “The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict,” the committee states. This is not a surprising or new approach by American policy-makers (or advisers, or committee members). In fact, it was the policy of all American administrations until the Bush administration turned it on its head and decided that the Arab-Israeli conflict was not the cause of the core problem of the Middle East, but rather one of its results.

Nevertheless—and however inconvenient this might seem for an Israeli government—the Baker-Hamilton position on the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict is viable and can easily be justified. But troubles emerge as soon as you delve into the practical recommendations regarding the “renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts”—the most important of the committee’s recommendations, other than those dealing directly with managing the troops in Iraq.

More than anything else, these proposals are no more than a reiteration of the old James Baker formula for peace. A formula—just take a look at the region—that was not entirely successful in achieving its goals of peace and stability for Israel and its Arab neighbors. “Henry Kissinger says the war in Iraq is unwinnable,” joked Jay Leno a couple of nights ago. “And if anybody knows how not to win a war, it’s Henry Kissinger.”

Try this joke with James Baker and the Middle East peace, and it works pretty well—but the formula the committee outlines reads more like an ego trip than a serious, new proposal. “This approach worked effectively in the early 1990s,” the committee states. (Remember who was secretary of state in the early 1990s?) It also says, “The purpose of these meetings would be to negotiate peace as was done at the Madrid Conference in 1991.” (And who was the chief facilitator of the Madrid summit?)

But dig deeper, you find flaws in the case for a regional summit everywhere. The recommendations regarding Syria, to give one example, are astonishing. The United States and Israel have refused to engage Syria in peace talks—and it seems as if the committee is ready to recommend a new approach of re-engagement. Or at least this is how the need-to-make-a-headline-out-of-it media have interpreted the report.

But what barriers does the committee set for the Syrians? “Some elements of that negotiated peace should be: Syria’s full cooperation with all investigations into political assassinations in Lebanon. … A verifiable cessation of Syrian aid to Hezbollah. … Syria’s use of its influence with Hamas and Hezbollah for the release of the captured Israeli Defense Force soldiers. … A verifiable cessation of Syrian efforts to undermine the democratically elected government of Lebanon.”

Amazingly enough, this is as similar as one can get to the stated goals of the Bush administration. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the United Nations that “we call upon every state, especially Iran and Syria, to respect the sovereignty of the Lebanese government.” Just last week, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said:

Here is Syria, which is clearly putting pressure on the Lebanese democracy, is a supporter of terror, is both provisioning and supporting Hezbollah and facilitating Iran in its efforts to support Hezbollah, is supporting the activities of Hamas. This is not a Syria that is on an agenda to bring peace and stability to the region, and I think [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert said, under those circumstances, with that kind of Syrian policy, how can you talk about negotiating on the Golan Heights? Seems to me that’s a sensible position.

So, the one difference between the committee’s proposals and the current administration policy is this: You refuse to engage Syria until it agrees to these reasonable demands—or you engage Syria first and then insist that it accepts these demands. Which brings me back to the question that opened this article: What do you do if the Syrians refuse to show positive signs of cooperation? Do you keep talking? Do you give up on your demands? Do you withdraw your negotiating team—waiting for the next committee to recommend yet another trial?

A U.S. administration official I spoke to a couple of days ago expressed anxiety that the report might create what he called a “false debate.” He was proved right.

A public-opinion poll released today by the Program on International Policy Attitudes asked if “it is a good idea or bad idea for the US to have talks with Iran?” and got the most predictable answer: Seventy-five percent believed it to be “a good idea.” Asking the same about Syria provided the exact same result.

The debate is indeed false, since it doesn’t address the most probable outcome of the committee’s recommendations: The Syrians will not cooperate, the U.N. Security Council will not convince the Iranians to give up on their nuclear program, and the Iraqi military will not be ready to assume power in the country. And then what?