A consensus seems to be developing that if only the Bush administration were to talk to Iran and Syria, we could end or substantially lower the level of violence there and begin “redeploying” our troops there. In recent days, such prominent Democrats as Sen. Joseph Biden, who will likely become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin, who is expected to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Barack Obama and retired Gen. Wesley Clark have all called for talks with Tehran and Damascus over Iraq’s future — and doing so in tandem with calling for a phased removal of American forces from Iraq. James Baker, head of the bipartisan Iraq Study Commission, which is expected to issue its recommendations on U.S. policy next month, has met with representatives of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, and says the Bush administration should do so, too.
Still reeling from election losses and escalating violence in Iraq, the Bush administration has made no real effort to counter the PR campaign. What is clear is this: As the situation inside Iraq worsens and American politicians and statesmen call for negotiating over Iraq’s future with two nations that have played leading roles in subverting the country, the United States is projecting vacillation and weakness. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hinted how little those nations fear the United States right now when he declared that Iran might be willing to enter into such discussions if Washington changes its malevolent behavior.
While talks with Tehran and Damascus are unlikely to achieve very much, we have no objection in principle to the idea of talking to these governments. After all, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, it makes little sense to talk only with people that we agree with. The real question is whether expanding dialogue with either of these governments is likely to yield peace or freedom in Iraq. The truth is that we have been talking both informally and informally with Iran and Syria for years. (Future editorials will address the largely unsuccessful efforts by the Bush and Clinton administrations and their predecessors to have useful dialogues with these governments.) In the spring of 2003, around the time that American forces were racing to depose Saddam Hussein, Tehran and Damascus cooperated with the United States — not because they had any interest in stabilizing a free Iraq, but because they feared the U.S. military would target them next. Right now, the stakes are very different; we would be bargaining from weakness. U.S. policy-makers clearly want to avoid expanding their military operations to Iran or Syria.
The truth is that U.S. difficulties with Iran and Syria began more than a quarter century ago and are unlikely to end anytime soon.