Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Baghdad Conference - Big Chance Or Cynical Set-up?

Yesterday, David Ignatius wrote "The Bush administration has agreed to sit around a negotiating table with official representatives of Iran and Syria next month -- as part of a planned regional conference in Baghdad to discuss ways to stabilize Iraq."

Ignatius went on to say that the Baghdad Conference, while purely about the Iraqi quagmire, might just offer the Bush administration a way into actual diplomacy with their opposite numbers in Iran and Syria over other contentious matters.

Thomas Barnett offers some hope-against hope commentary which clearly presents the two ways this could go.
Much will depend, of course, on whether we come to deal at this conference or just to accuse. Iran seems in both a good (external) and bad (internal) place with Bush and the Saudis trying to do unto Tehran (conflate sectarian conflicts) what Tehran did to us last summer with Hezbollah. Completely reprehensible unless...

Scary business by Bush, but if the set-up on the conference unfolds with some real dexterity on all sides (Saudis seem scared enough, so do Israel and Syria, Iran's feeling pressed, and the U.S. sees Iraq-the-project coming apart while Afghanistan/Pakistan are moving backwards), then Bush can salvage much historically with the Big Bang and Rice's great moment may finally have arrived.

This has been my fondest hope with these guys: that they'd get to the end of the second term, realize--as so many before them--that serious strategic imagination is called for if they want to make some lasting foreign policy legacy come about, and then bite the bullet on "not doing diplomacy" and make it happen.

Reagan did it, and so can Bush if he really wants (and if Cheney's influence is checked).

So a move like this, if it unfolds as hoped, can become a huge Deus ex machina-like rationale for Bush to say, "I was setting this up all along."

I don't think that's true. I honestly believe Bush has been planning for some time to have somebody strike Iran before Jan 2009. But because of the huge internal resistance such talk has engendered, he's increasingly wary of pursuing than--thus the reversal on the ISG's recommendations, which, if pursued well, let's Bush claim that was his intent all along.

And hey, if it works, then Bush does get to claim credit no matter the path, and that credit will soften much of the historical judgment of his takedown of Saddam.

...You can't overestimate the power of this dialogue, if done well, but that's a huge "if" that speaks primarily to this administration's capacity for very practical and realistic dealmaking. The Saudis, Israelis and Iranians are all--generally speaking--pretty practical types when push comes to shove. So all of Bush's threats--especially the overriding one of further mismanagement of Iraq--can work to his advantage here if he truly turns on this dime and makes something happen.

If pursued, this would be a transformative event with this crew, so I certainly hope they jump at it.

Pursued cynically, though, then this is merely the diplomatic set-up for war with Iran and Sy Hersh's scenarios seem more likely.
I have to say, "cynical" is what I would bet on, given the administration's track record.

I fully expect some of the same kind of manouvering as we've seen over Iran's nuclear program - where the White House has consistently acted behind the scenes to scupper every chance of dialogue then blamed Iran's intransigence when it refuses to accept demands that it surrender the object of negotiations before negotiations even begin. Iran then counters with assertions that it is ready to negotiate but that it will never give up what the negotiations are to be about - uranium enrichment.

The entire process could be seen from a regional perspective - where both parties have now set out their most ridiculous offers and the haggling could now begin. Unfortunately, the Bush administration keeps on seeing all this as a game of poker, where both player's are bluffing and the one to crack first loses. It is determined not to be the one to crack - which means it will continue to play its busted flush all the way up until the bombs start falling.

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