The Conference Bush Needs

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 22/07/07):

President Bush’s call for an international peace conference on the Middle East puts him in the right church but the wrong pew. The big-power conference Bush needs to propose should have Iraq as its main subject, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The more urgent task for Bush is to build a sustainable exit strategy for Iraq that does not get overwhelmed by domestic politics and the daily battlefield calamities that have turned public opinion decisively against the war.

Scheduling a decision-making conference on Iraq’s political future for early next year — Bush’s last in office — would help accomplish such a goal. Convened in Paris under the auspices of the United Nations, the talks should gather global and regional powers, Iraq’s neighbors, and its main political factions — in short, everyone who has an important stake in ending the torment of a country that has been at war with itself or its neighbors for 35 terrible years.

The staged withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq’s zones of sectarian conflict and their replacement with other security forces would be a major topic for the conference to resolve. The point would be to get Iraq’s Arab neighbors and Iran, which wage a proxy war through the Sunni and Shiite communities in Iraq, to accept responsibility for reaching and maintaining a durable truce between those communities.

Turkey’s legitimate concerns about stability in northern Iraq should be balanced with the Kurds’ justified insistence on maintaining the constitutional rights and autonomy they currently possess. Security guarantees should be extended from the world’s major powers to all Persian Gulf states that verifiably renounce acquiring nuclear weapons. And so on.

I grant that this modest proposal seems utopian, especially given Bush’s history of “unilateralism” in foreign policy. But the alternatives being discussed elsewhere are no more likely to succeed. Proposing an Iraqi peace conference is no more unrealistic than are meaningless congressional debates on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Baghdad government reaching U.S.-set “benchmarks,” or mutterings in the administration about expanding the war into Iran.

Political changes in Europe also favor a multilateral resetting of the Iraq crisis. President Nicolas Sarkozy and his new French government — particularly Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner — have credibility both with Washington and with the major regional and Iraqi actors. That is why the conference should be held in and organized by France. Gordon Brown’s coming to power provides Britain’s Labor government with new flexibility and authority on changing Iraq policy.

The underlying thought is that the specter of an international conference devoted to extricating the United States from Iraq would focus minds in Washington, Riyadh, Moscow, Berlin and elsewhere on the global consequences of U.S. withdrawal. It would also give Bush some cover for painful political choices he must now make in conceding that his initial approach failed.

There is no guarantee, of course, that all Iraqi factions or neighboring countries would participate in such a conference. But forcing them to decline would at least fix responsibility on the rejectionists for their role in continuing the conflict. Bush has failed to hold the Sunni Arab regimes to account for fueling the insurgency.

Could a fading administration that has shown little skill in managing peace or war bring such an ambitious diplomatic project to a successful conclusion? Perhaps not. But putting in place for his successor a framework for dealing with an orderly withdrawal from Iraq would be an accomplishment in itself for Bush and could help avoid a constitutional test of wills with Congress over warmaking powers.

Bush showed new interest in using diplomacy to buy time in that fashion by announcing last week that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would chair an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this autumn. Until now, Bush has rejected the tactic used by most previous administrations of sponsoring Arab-Israeli talks even if — or perhaps especially if — they had little chance for success. Talking for the sake of talking was better than the alternative of bloodshed, and it took public pressure off Arab regimes.

The conditions that Bush set for attending the conference — primarily the formal recognition of Israel — exclude some key Arab states, Iran and the Palestinian radicals of Hamas.

The driving force behind Bush’s Middle East conference seems in fact to be the desire to isolate and break Hamas politically.

That is high-risk and time-consuming. Seeking new international openings — and openness — on Iraq is the more pressing challenge for Bush’s limited time and possibilities.