Pull up a chair

March 02, 2007

The White House press secretary, Tony Snow, cautions against reading too much into the announcement that the United States will be sitting down with Iran and Syria in a regional diplomatic conference on Iraq, starting later this month. Here's what we read into it:

Some people in the administration are realizing that the options on Iraq are running out. The public's patience is threadbare; the military won't stand for a further surge; Republican politicians are jumping ship.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are wielding more influence within the administration, and they're not as adamantly devoted to saber-rattling as is, for instance, Vice President Dick Cheney - who at the moment has I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's perjury trial to worry about.

Mr. Snow says not to expect any direct talks, one-on-one, with either the Iranians or the Syrians. Expect them.

Don't be surprised if the talks are torpedoed, from Washington. Failed negotiations over Iraq could make it even easier for the hawks to ramp up the bellicose rhetoric against Iran and Syria.

The administration said it wouldn't talk one-on-one with North Korea. It did, and struck a deal.

A lot of people in Washington are getting seriously worried about Afghanistan. The bomb attack directed at Mr. Cheney this week was only a foretaste of what might be coming, they fear. This is in all likelihood why the British are pulling troops out of Iraq - to send them posthaste to Afghanistan. Iran provided considerable help to the U.S. during America's first Afghan war, in 2001; it might make sense to see if there could be a repeat of that.

All this talk of the U.S. joining with the Sunni Muslim world to oppose the Shiites may have gone a little too far. The American-sponsored government in Baghdad is essentially Shiite, after all, while al-Qaida, among others, is Sunni.

The regional conference may present the U.S. with unexpected opportunities to forge some sort of settlement on Iraq - or at least the framework of a settlement. Don't count on this administration to capitalize on them. But here's hoping.

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