Bush and Iraq Study Group: Competing visions for Middle East

The president talks of Iraqi democracy, but the report stresses regional stability.

With President Bush turning a cold shoulder to key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, one explanation is the wide gulf between the group's prescription for addressing the Middle East and the president's vision for the region.

The study group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, places a high priority on restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and reenergizing America's role in it. Mr. Bush, who has never viewed that conflict as ripe for the kind of intense US diplomacy Mr. Baker had dedicated to it, continues to see success in Iraq as the demonstration project for peace and reform in the region.

"Bush had this idea that Baghdad was going to radically alter the Middle East," says Henri Barkey, a former State Department specialist on Iraq now at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "For him, the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad. Baker is saying you get to Baghdad through Jerusalem," he adds, "but it's hard to see Bush embracing that thinking now."

As Bush considers an array of alternatives and prepares for a speech that the White House says he hopes to give before Christmas laying out his plan for a new direction in Iraq, the broader question of how best to reform the Middle East will be a determining factor.

Last month in Riga, Latvia, Bush extolled the transformational power of a democratic Iraq. He has not given up on the idea of a functioning democracy as the answer to Iraq's ills – indeed, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol has taken to calling him "the last neocon." In stark contrast, the study group's report emphasizes stability as the most pressing need, passing over goals of regional freedom and democracy.

Iran and Syria

One of the report's central proposals – seen by the panel as a necessity for progress in Iraq – is a broad and intense regional dialogue that includes both Iran and Syria. But the Bush approach, one fine-tuned and doggedly pursued by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has been to isolate those two countries as troublemaking cats that must first change their spots before being welcomed to the negotiating table.

Bush remains at heart a believer in regime change in the case of regimes deemed to be supporters of international terrorism, some analysts say. And some White House officials say the president sees much about the Baker-Hamilton report as better-suited to the Middle East of the former secretary of State's heyday in the late 1980s and early '90s, while not so much a response to the post-9/11 world.

For Bush, talks with the United States should be dangled as a reward: for Iran once it gives up its nuclear ambitions, and for Syria as a prize for disengaging from Lebanon and relinquishing support for Hizbullah. "The truth of the matter is these countries have now got the choice to make," Bush said last week in comments on the study group's recommendations.

The study group recommends decoupling Iran's nuclear programs from the Iraq issue and leaving it to the United Nations Security Council.

For Baker, diplomacy is not about talking to your friends, but is really about dealing with your enemies. As Mr. Hamilton says, "How do you solve problems without talking to people?"

Baker acknowledges that Iran might not even want to join talks on Iraq. But he adds that finding that out would be useful: If Iran rejects an outstretched hand, he says, it would be a clear demonstration to the world of Tehran's intransigence and rejectionist approach.

Still, the study group placed such emphasis on regional diplomacy and in particular on Iran and Syria because it concluded the stakes in Iraq are such that no country wants deeper chaos. "We do not think it's in the Iranian interest for the American policy to fail completely and lead to chaos," Hamilton said last week.

That position is supported by experts and former diplomats who have worked with the Iranians in the past. "The Iranians may feel no compulsion to rush to Washington's assistance," notes James Dobbins, director of international security and defense at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va.

Mr. Dobbins, who was the Bush administration's envoy on formation of a post- Taliban government in Afghanistan, says the Iranians were instrumental in that process.

Calling it a "Washington myth" that the US formed an international coalition in late 2001 to defeat the Taliban, he says the US actually joined a preexisting coalition of countries – which included Iran.

"Iranian diplomats were being killed, and refugees were pouring into their country," says Dobbins, a former emissary for several administrations. "Our interests were coincidental."

Iran's post-Taliban input

But the Iranians went beyond mere cooperation, says Dobbins. "It was the Iranians who suggested the word 'democracy' be inserted in the Bonn agreement" that set out the guideposts for the new regime in Afghanistan, he says. "It was also their suggestion that the Afghans cooperate with the international community on terrorism."

In addition, the Iranians were ready to work with an American-run program to build an Afghan national army – which could have begun to melt the two-decades-thick ice between Iran and the US, he says – before the US nixed the idea. (When the US suggested to an Iranian military official that cooperation might be difficult because army training procedures would be so different, the officer said that, in fact, the Iranian military was still using manuals the US left behind in 1979, Dobbins says.)

Still, working with Iran now would be harder, he acknowledges: The reform government that helped out on Afghanistan was replaced by the more radical regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and trends in the region, including American difficulties in Iraq, have left the regime "feeling confident," he says.

But the "coincidental interests" are still there, Dobbins says. Like the US, the Iranians want a "democracy" in Iraq, if only because it puts the majority Shiite population in power.

Some experts say the emphasis that the study group report places on Iran and Syria exaggerates the influence they have in Iraq. But they say there is little doubt both could help make things better: Syria, for example, through a better control of its border.

One option that a Pentagon study for a redirection in Iraq is considering is a redeployment of US troops – from fighting in Iraq's increasingly sectarian strife to concentrating on Al Qaeda forces in Iraq. Control of the Syrian border is considered a key part of addressing the international terrorist presence among the Iraqi population.

But how far Bush will go in embracing the regional approach – and accepting avenues he has rejected in the past – probably won't be known until he gives his speech. "All administrations deny they are changing policy," Dobbins says, "up to the moment they change it."

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