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Bartering with Nothing

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Why a regional conference won't solve our Iraq problem.

Nov 27, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 11 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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With the Syrians, the situation is the same. They gain by the turmoil in Iraq. And they have not been punished for giving aid to the Iraqi insurgency. Syria is right now regaining ground in Lebanon, the most important foreign-policy objective of the Assad regime, against America's wishes and the Bush administration's determined diplomacy. Undoubtedly the Assad regime believes that America's enfeeblement in Iraq has helped Syria's cause in Lebanon. The last real gasp of serious American diplomacy on Lebanon occurred in 2005 before Bashar Assad realized there was no substance to America's soft-power approach to pressuring Damascus (U.N. resolutions don't intimidate Middle Eastern dictators). More important, this diplomatic push occurred before the Bush administration realized that its counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq was failing. We are now much weaker than we were in 2005.

Doubtless the heretical Shiite-Alawite regime in Damascus, with its minority power base, would prefer not to see a Sunni-Shiite blood bath in Iraq. But the key for Alawite survival is the Iranian connection, not fraternity with Sunnis upset by Iraq, and especially not with anti-Shiite Sunni fundamentalists, whom the regime has at times energetically slaughtered. So what's left? Washington could bless the Syrian reoccupation of Lebanon, although it is difficult to believe that the president would do this. Besides, given the perception of American weakness in the region, even such a concession, so humiliating to us, would likely be of little barter value.

To negotiate successfully in the Middle East, you have to convince the denizens that you have and are willing to use power. To enter into a conference--assuming the Syrians and the Iranians would deign to participate--from a position of weakness is to guarantee that you exit weaker than when you went in. And the last thing the Bush administration needs now is to appear any more feeble. If for some reason the president feels compelled to try to convene such a conference or bilateral talks with Syria or Iran on Iraq, he would do America's diplomats a big favor by announcing first that 50,000 new troops are on their way to Mesopotamia and that we intend to slug this out until we win. Covertly but noticeably, the United States should also start high-altitude observation flights over Iran's nuclear facilities. More naval activity in the Persian Gulf would help, too. If the Syrians and the Iranians were entering negotiations with us, that's what they'd do.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.