November 28, 2006 | Scripps Howard News Service

Give Them Something to Talk About

The controversy over whether the U.S. should talk with Iran and Syria begs the question: What would we say? More specifically, what are we willing to offer in exchange for cooperation — and what are we prepared to threaten if our conflict with these regimes continues?

Psychoanalysts may believe in talking cures. But a gaggle of diplomats from hostile nations sitting around chewing the fat is unlikely to produce useful results. More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt observed: “Diplomacy is utterly useless where there is no force behind it.”

The U.S. employed force effectively to topple Saddam Hussein. Since then, it’s been the Saddam loyalists, al-Qaeda terrorists and sectarian militias who have understood – better than we have — that wars are won by destroying the enemy’s will to fight. Tell the truth: Has the carnage you’ve been seeing on TV every night not had that impact on you?

After Saddam’s fall, the U.S. goal was to create a free and democratic Iraq. Such a nation, it was hoped, would inspire Iranians, Syrians and others in the region to fight for their liberation as well. Not surprisingly, the anti-democratic rulers of Iran and Syria made it their mission to undermine the project. As the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad stated clearly that he would turn Iraq into another Lebanon

One might have expected the White House and the Pentagon to have prepared for that eventuality – to have readied a terrible response the moment it was apparent Syria and Iran were abetting America’s enemies in Iraq. Instead, for more than three years, there has been only talk — diplomatic expressions of concern.

This week, for example, amid reports that Hezbollah, the terrorist proxy of Iran and Syria, is training anti-American Iraqi Shia militias, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns warned that Syria should not expect “to derive the benefits of a normal political or economic relationship with the Sunni Arab States, or with the EU states, or with the U.S. as long as they continue to be caught in the nexus of terrorism, along with Iran.” Well, that must have sent shivers up Assad’s spine, don’t you think?

Does all this imply that nothing can be gained through negotiations? Most conservatives have come to that conclusion, but most liberals and foreign policy Establishment types disagree. The Iraq Study Group co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton is widely expected to recommend that President Bush open a new diplomatic dialogue. If so, they would be well advised to look at the thoughtful paper written for the current issue of the Washington Quarterly by the Hoover Institution’s Larry Diamond, Michael McFaul and Abbas Milani.

These scholars suggest the U.S. seek a “comprehensive agreement” with Iran, one in which Washington would “propose to end the economic embargo, unfreeze all Iranian assets, restore full diplomatic relations, support the initiation of talks on Iran’s entry into the WTO, encourage foreign investment, and otherwise move toward a normal relationship with the Iranian government.”

In return, Tehran would have to agree to a verifiable suspension of its nuclear weapons development program, end its “support for terrorist groups and activities, including training, intelligence support, and weapons shipments for Hizballah, Hamas and radical Shi’ite militias in Iraq” and affirm basic human rights principles.

The U.S. would need to make sure the Iranian people know they are being offered a grand bargain, one that includes “badly needed economic development, foreign investment, increased employment, new educational prospects at home and abroad and more generally an end to Iran’s international isolation.”

If the mullahs accept the offer, Iranians and Americans both benefit. As for Syria’s Assad, he runs Iran’s Damascus branch office; without foreign support, he could be forced to back down relatively easily.

What if the mullahs reject the deal? Diamond, McFaul and Milani think they probably will, but add that by doing so they “further undermine their already weak legitimacy with a young, restive and suffering people. The blunt exposure of the mullahs’ obsession with defending their own power and privilege at the expense of the public could intensify popular unrest, further divide an already splintered regime, and eventually create the conditions for regime crisis and transition to democracy. Heads we win, tails they lose.”

If you’re going to negotiate with the enemy, at least know what you’re going to say. The Diamond, McFaul, Milani approach provides talking points. And I would add that Teddy Roosevelt’s rules also should be kept in mind. Diplomatic initiatives are more persuasive when those offering them not only speak softly but also carry a big stick.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.


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