The Fine Line Between Our Friends and Enemies

Should the United States attack Iran, which side would the Iraqi government support? The answer to that simple question is far from clear, despite the thousands of lives and the billions of dollars we have sacrificed to support the ruling coalition in Baghdad. While the Bush administration seeks to isolate and even overthrow the Iranian regime as well as its Syrian ally, its supposed partners in Iraq are establishing closer relationships with both.

Indeed, the most powerful elements of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s political coalition regularly collude with the Iranian intelligence apparatus—which the Bush administration has accused of arming the insurgents and terrorists who are attacking our forces, committing sectarian atrocities and undermining the new Iraqi democracy. The Maliki government has resumed diplomatic relations with Syria, signed a billion-dollar aid agreement with Iran and encouraged the expansion of Iranian consulates and border stations.

Friendship with Iran and Syria is endorsed not only by Shiite fundamentalists such as Muqtada al-Sadr, the American adversary who controls the Mahdi Army, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the chief of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and recent White House guest—but also by President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the Kurdish leaders who believe in secular democracy and actually like the United States.

Nothing illustrated the profound differences between the U.S. and Iraq over relations with Iran better than the recent, highly provocative incident in which American soldiers raided an Iranian office in the northern city of Irbil and arrested five alleged Iranian subversives. During a tense confrontation, the Americans faced the cocked weapons of Kurdish peshmerga troops, who surrounded the Iranian facility.

Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces who will soon leave Iraq, described those prisoners as “foreign intelligence agents in this country, working with Iraqis to destabilize Iraq and target coalition forces that are here at Iraq’s request.” But Mr. Zebari rejected that accusation and demanded the immediate release of the five Iranians. He told the Los Angeles Times that his government’s policy is to “engage [Iran] constructively”—notably in a security agreement just signed between the two countries.

So in Iraq, the friends of our enemies are … our best and only friends.

That lethal contradiction is among the many reasons why the President’s plan to send more troops to Iraq won’t achieve his objectives—and why the framework of his policy, which rejects negotiation with Iran or Syria, is fundamentally flawed.

What will happen when five additional American combat brigades arrive in Baghdad during the next several months? According to the Bush theory, they will combine with the Iraqi Army and National Police to establish security while suppressing both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.

In reality, the probable result is that the Shiite militias will temporarily disappear (into the police ranks, among other places), while the joint American-Iraqi operations finish disarming and driving out the Sunni rebels. At that point, the Shiite militias will reappear—as they certainly will if and when the United States engages in hostile action against Iran.

As an American military official complained bitterly to The New York Times, “We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem. We are being played like a pawn.”

Nothing proposed by President Bush in his “new way forward” speech solves this conundrum. Instead, he and his aides pretend that the Middle East is now divided between “reformers and responsible leaders” in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, versus Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. So said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Jan. 11, when she declared that the President’s escalation represents a “regional strategy.”

She was wrong, as usual.

There is no such simple divide in the Middle East. Even Israel has been secretly (and successfully) negotiating with the Syrians through third parties over the past two years, as revealed by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. For the United States to rule out discussion with the Iranians or the Syrians—while the Iraqis exchange diplomats and sign agreements with those governments—is not a regional strategy. It is merely the residue of strategic failure.

The only “new” way forward in Iraq and the Middle East, as the study group led by James Baker III and Lee Hamilton explained, is the same as the old way forward: broad negotiations among the conflicting parties, sponsored by the United States and its traditional allies, to achieve political solutions among the conflicting parties. That would mean requiring the Iraqi government to pursue honest reconciliation between Sunni and Shia, including amnesty for most of the insurgents, as a requirement for any future American military or reconstruction assistance. That would also mean inviting the Syrians and the Iranians into regional or bilateral discussions on the security of Iraq.

Whenever the Democrats grow weary of hearing that they have no alternative to Mr. Bush’s madness, they could do much worse than to adopt the entirely sane Baker-Hamilton report.

The Fine Line Between  Our Friends and Enemies