Push Bush toward diplomacy

February 06, 2007|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- Senators who want America to change course in Iraq should stop wasting their time on opposing the president's troop buildup.

Whether or not we deploy a few thousand new troops to Baghdad won't make much difference. The only hope for creating decent conditions for a troop exit is shrewd regional diplomacy that prods Iraq's neighbors to help stabilize Baghdad.

Thus far, the White House has rejected the diplomatic track - the main recommendation of the Iraq Study Group. Instead, the Bush team is intensifying its rhetoric against Iran, raising fears it will open a new military front against Tehran to distract from its troubles in Baghdad.

So listen up, senators on both sides of the aisle who want to save America from bigger disaster: Focus on pressing the administration to engage in intensive Mideast diplomacy - before it's too late.

Indeed, the moment is ripe for the kind of tough diplomacy for which former Secretary of State James A. Baker III was famous. The United States has huge leverage with Iraq's Arab neighbors - and Iran - if it would only use it.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, Arab and Iranian leaders displayed despair about their future deeper than I've seen in 30 years of covering the Middle East.

Sunni Arab politicians and businessmen fear that Iraq's Sunni-Shiite civil war will suck in the whole region. They also fear the rising influence of Iran. Iranians are nervous, too - though they don't admit it in public - that a U.S. exit from Iraq will trigger open regional warfare between Iranians and Arabs. And Iraqi leaders are terrified that these Arab-Iranian battles will be fought on their soil.

So Arab and Iranian leaders all have an interest in avoiding the chaos that awaits them if U.S. troops leave Iraq. Yet, on their own, they seem unable to convene a regional forum and agree to stop meddling in Iraq and work to stabilize the country.

Iraqi government leaders are trying to convene such a forum, but they have gotten too little help from their neighbors. Sunni Arab states mistrust Iraq's Shiite-led government. And Iran is too eager to assert its new power in the region, which it acquired thanks to America's ouster of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

Outside mediation is clearly needed; the United States has the clout and leverage. So what's the catch? It's that regional diplomacy would require the White House to start a dialogue with a charter member of the "axis of evil" - Iran.

The White House has chosen a different tack, ratcheting up the pressure on Tehran. The Pentagon has dispatched additional warships to the Persian Gulf and deployed upgraded Patriot missiles to Arab gulf countries. U.S. forces have also arrested Iranians inside Iraq, whom they accuse of helping Iraqi militias that attack U.S. forces.

Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi told me the Iranians arrested in Baghdad had been invited by his Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest party in the government. The intent was to tell these Iranian officials that Iraq's government didn't want Iranians fighting Americans on its soil. Mr. Mahdi said at Davos, "We tell them both [Iran and the U.S.], `Please don't make Iraq into a battlefield between you.'"

If U.S. pressure on Iran were a prelude to negotiations, it might make sense. Iran's overconfidence about its growing strength and U.S. weakness has made it too willing to back radical groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. A reminder of America's residual power might not be amiss.

If the White House had a broad regional strategy of dialogue, it would also make sense for Congress to hold fire on troop withdrawals. The United States would set a timeline for drawing down troops only after Iraq's neighbors committed to stabilizing the country.

However, there is no sign that the new policy of confronting Iran is part of a broader strategy. Instead, U.S. officials are hyping charges that Iran is the key source of deadly attacks on American soldiers in Iraq. Yet the overwhelming cause of U.S. deaths in Iraq is the Sunni insurgency. The Bush administration's green light for U.S. troops to kill Iranian operatives in Iraq could lead to open warfare between Iran and the United States.

So, where is U.S. policy in the region headed? Will the United States blame its failures in Iraq on Iran and open a second front? Every Arab leader I spoke with in Davos, even those deeply opposed to Iranian policies, stressed that it would be disastrous for America to bomb Iranian nuclear sites. This would embolden radical Islamists everywhere.

Once again, the United States seems headed into a Mideast battle without a compass. Those in the Senate who care can't afford to get sidetracked by the surge. Without a broad U.S. strategy for regional dialogue, the Iraq disaster will metastasize. Senators, put your energies into pushing the White House to engage in Mideast diplomacy, now.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column usually appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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