Suddenly, the Bush administration is prepared to sit around a table with Iran and Syria to discuss Iraq. “Better late than never,” crowed Leon Panetta, one of the Democrats who served on the Iraq Study Group chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. So, were Baker and Hamilton right when they proposed talks with Syria and Iran as a way out of our Iraq imbroglio?
The answer is no. The question is not whether to talk to Iran or Syria, but in what context. What else are we doing while talking? The ISG proposed to couple such talks with beginning to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. This would make us the petitioner, looking to Tehran and Damascus to cover our back while we flee.
Given that Iran’s official slogan is “death to America,” and its president speaks of his dream of a “world without America,” why do sophisticated men like Baker and Hamilton need to be told the obvious: Iran does not want to help us. They might reply that they do not expect beneficence but rather a diplomatic deal. What, then, would Iran and Syria want in exchange for their help? The price is obvious: acquiescence in the former’s quest for nuclear weapons and the latter’s renewed domination of Lebanon. Is this a price we can afford?
In contrast to the ISG proposal, the Bush administration is, as the Democrats say, “escalating” the U.S. presence in Iraq (albeit not as much as I would like) in pursuit of victory. Along with that, why not talk to whomever?
The position of refusing to talk to some other party is always awkward and hard to defend. Regarding Iran’s nuclear drive, we have said that we will talk to Tehran if it freezes its enrichment activities lest we get drawn into a long, fruitless negotiation that serves only as a cover for the completion of Iran’s bomb. Sensible though this is, we still are chided, most recently by IAEA chief Mohamed el-Baradei, for refusing to talk.
Here is the solution. We should announce that we will talk to Tehran unconditionally, but not as a substitute for stopping Iran from getting the bomb. For its part, Iran can continue enrichment while we talk. For our part, we will continue to plan a military strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, and we will promise to carry it out soon—say, before the 2008 presidential primaries begin—absent some other solution. There is never harm in talking, as long as it doesn’t keep us from acting.