What do politicians do when they run out of ideas? Easy: First, they set up a commission, and then propose to talk to somebody.
This is happening with regard to Iraq, the issue that, we are told, helped Democrats gain control of the US Congress and Senate last week. The commission was set up several weeks ago under the neutral label of Iraq Study Group, with former Secretary of State James Baker III in the chair. And now, even before the group has even written its report, we are told that Baker will come out with the "let's-talk-to-somebody" slogan soon.
For their part, the new Democrat majority, finding it hard to agree on any realistic alternative to President George W. Bush's stay-the-course policy, are trying to hide behind Baker.
Baker says he is working on "elegant solutions", among them talking to the rulers in Tehran. Last week he dined with the Islamic republic's ambassador to the United Nations in New York for three hours, encouraging "cut-and-run" rumors in Washington and London.(Interestingly, Baker seems to have been pre-empted by the current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who asked one of her aides to raise the "talk to Iran" option at a congressional hearing on Tuesday.)
Well, what is wrong with talking to Tehran about Iraq?
After all, Iraq has its longest border with the Islamic republic, a full 1250-km stretch of difficult terrain. The two neighbors need to work together to clean up the Shatt Al-Arab estuary without which Khorramshahr, Iran's largest port, and its Iraqi counterpart Basra cannot reopen for business. There are also scores of Kurdish, Luri and Arab tribes who have kith and kin on both sides of the border. Some of them still living as nomads, spend part of the year in Iran and part in Iraq. Also, Iran imports large quantities of both crude oil, for its refinery at Kermanshah, and refined petroleum products from Iraq while exporting a range of cheap consumer goods. Add to all that the fact that an average of 5,000 Iranians enter Iraq each day for pilgrimage at the Shiite shrines of Karbala, Najaf , Kazemayn and Samarra, and you will have a full agenda for the two neighbors to discuss.
But these are not issues that could be discussed between Washington and Tehran in the absence of the Iraqi authorities. To script the elected Iraqi government out of the process can only raise suspicions that the US is seeking an Irano-American condominium on Iraq, indeed, on the whole of the Middle East.
When I raised the issue with administration sources in Washington last week I was assured that any talks that might take place would focus only on persuading Iran to stop "doing mischief" in Iraq. In other words, the talks will not be about normal issues of Irano-Iraqi relations but what the US claims to be a growing Iranian involvement in recruiting, training and arming insurgents and militias in Iraq.
Now, even if the proposed dialogue were limited to Iran's alleged terrorist operations, talking to Tehran would be like casting the wolf as the grandmother.
In Iraq, Iran is part of the problem, and cannot become part of the solution.
The most they can offer is to stop making mischief in Shiite provinces by curbing Moqtada Sadr, their wild card in Iraq. In exchange for that, they are sure to demand a real say in shaping the future of Iraq, something that most Iraqis would shudder at. However, the Iranians have no control over Saddamite bitter-enders or Al-Qaeda terrorists who are the real threat to new Iraq.
Do the advocates of the "talk -to-Iran" hope that the Islamic republic would send troops to fight the Saddamites and Al-Qaeda, once the Americans begin to leave?
Imagine a Persian army entering Arab Iraq. Would it be pouring water on fire or adding fuel?
One reason some Iraqi Arab Sunnis, and most Arab states, hesitate to back the US-led coalition is their fear that Washington might have a secret plan to hand Iraq over to Iranians and help them set up a "Shiite Crescent" stretching from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. The current buzz about an Irano-American condominium in Iraq simply reinforces that fear. And that, in turn, would make it far more difficult to persuade the Arab Sunni insurgents to join the Iraqi political process rather than siding with the insurgents.
With the American election over, it is time to have a real debate about Iraq, starting by a definition of the problem, before "elegant solutions" are offered.
Speaking in London last Monday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair defined the problem clearly:
"In Iraq, terrorism has changed the nature of the battle. Its purpose is plain: To provoke civil war. The violence is not therefore an accident or a result of faulty planning. It is a deliberate strategy. It is the direct result of outside extremists teaming up with internal extremists — Al-Qaeda with the Sunni insurgents, Iranian backed Shiite militia — to foment hatred and thus throttle at birth the possibility of nonsectarian democracy. These external elements are the same elements driving extremism the world over. The majority of Iraqis don't want this extremism — they showed that when they voted for an explicitly nonsectarian government."
What this means is that the struggle in Iraq is part of the broader war against global jihadism.
Most Iraqis do not support the terrorists. Thus, it would be treacherous to abandon them before they can defend themselves.
Although numerous terms are used to describe Iraq, only one reflects its reality: War. There is a war going on in Iraq, albeit a low intensity one. On one side, there is the new Iraqi political system, symbolized by an elected Parliament and government. On the opposite side, there are a variety of forces who, for a wide range of reasons, wish to destroy this new system.
This gives everyone three options.
The first is to stay out of the fight. The second is to take the side of the new Iraqi system. The third is to back the insurgents. Tehran has tried to do all three at the same time. It had given the new Iraqi government public political support. But it has also armed and financed militias that defy the new government's authority. Lastly, it has also tried to stay out of the big fight by turning a blind eye to the coming and goings of non-Shiite insurgents.
The US-UK coalition has so far been on the side of the new Iraqi system, although not with as much resolve as necessary. With a change of majority in the US, the coalition may now be looking for a cover under which it can walk away from the fight with some dignity.
The US-UK coalition did not go to Iraq for a picnic. It went to dismantle a vicious regime and replace it with one chosen by Iraqis.
Those objectives have been achieved, but are challenged by the elements Blair described.
The message to those in search of "elegant solutions" is simple: This is a war, stupid!
There are few elegant solutions in war.
One can surrender. One can try to run away. One can also stand and fight to win.
These are the options. So, let the debate begin.