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Engaging Iraq’s Neighbors in Dialogue Could Ease Violence, Expert Argues

November 2, 2006 at 6:25 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, another conversation about what the United States can or should do next in Iraq. Thus far, we’ve heard about ending the occupation, decentralizing Iraq, improving the training of Iraqi security forces, economic development, and sending more U.S. troops. Tonight, in our sixth and final conversation, engaging Iraq’s neighbors, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: And for that, we turn to James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation. He’s held top State Department and White House posts under four presidents. As the Bush administration’s envoy to Afghanistan, he negotiated with that country’s neighbors at the 2001 conference that helped create Kabul’s post-Taliban government.

And, Ambassador Dobbins, how can Iraq’s neighbors be useful in helping to stabilize the country?

JAMES DOBBINS, International Security and Defense Policy Center: Well, I think if we’re going to hold the country together, it’s important that the Iraqi political leaders are getting convergent rather than divergent pressures from all of the neighboring states, as well as the United States, all of whom have influence, all of whom have interests engaged, all of whom have the capacity to help shape Iraqi opinion.

If the political leaders are getting divergent pressures, they’re going to find it very hard to reconcile themselves and pull the country together. So it’s absolutely important that those pressures work in the same direction, rather than in contrary directions, which is pretty much the case at the moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Since the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, hasn’t the United States from time to time been worried, suspicious of the neighbors’ involvement in Iraq?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think it has. And, of course, that’s all the more reason to engage them. You can’t exclude neighboring states from this process. After all, it’s them, not us, that are going to get the refugees, the overflow from crime, endemic disease, terrorism and crime, as the result of a fragmenting Iraq.

They can’t afford to stay unengaged. All of them are going to pick favorites; all of them are going to establish clients and surrogates in the country. And if they’re left to their own devices, they’re going to pursue their interests in a way that tears the country apart, even though that’s not what they want.

It’s only if they act together that they can use those pressures to hold the country together, rather than tear it apart.

Support from regional governments

James Dobbins
RAND Corporation
With the Saudis, the Jordanians, you're talking about influence with the Sunni community. With the Iranians, you're talking about influence with the Shia community.

RAY SUAREZ: Iraq has six neighbors, and including two that the United States finds very difficult to talk to, Iran and Syria. Can it get the neighbors involved in strategy work with those two glaring omissions?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think the most important ones to talk to are the ones that are being least helpful. Look, in 1995, we decided that we couldn't resolve the civil war in Bosnia without bringing in the presidents of Serbia and Croatia, Milosevic and Tudjman, who were guilty of genocide.

We didn't say, "No, we're not going to talk to you. You're guilty of genocide." We said, "You've got to come to our conference. You've got to be part of the process. And you've got to help us implement the agreement we reach here."

In 1999, we couldn't stop the Kosovo war without involving the Russians who were supporting the wrong side, the other side. They became part of the diplomatic solution.

In 2001, we couldn't establish a representative government to succeed the Taliban unless we brought in the states that had been fighting a civil war in Afghanistan, that had been feeding a civil war in Afghanistan for 20 years: the Russians, the Iranians, the Pakistanis and the Indians. We brought them into the process. We worked closely with all of them, including the Iranians, and they were all very helpful in ensuring that we were able to quickly replace the Taliban with a broadly representative government.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's say you got some acceptance inside the administration for this idea. Do you have any specific roles in mind for the various countries that surround Iraq?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think that each of the countries will be most influential with those elements of the society which they favor, which have been dependent on them, which are looking to them for funding or moral support.

And so with the Saudis, the Jordanians, you're talking about influence with the Sunni community. With the Iranians, you're talking about influence with the Shia community. All of them can help make it more difficult for fighters, money and other sources of supply and support for the various contending factions in Iraq to reach those factions.

All of them can exercise some influence on the Iraqi politicians in favor of reconciliation, in favor of political moderation, and in favor of tamping down the violence.

Taking risks

James Dobbins
RAND Corporation
When we went into Iraq, we talked about making it a model for the region, and democratizing all the neighboring states once we finished with Iraq. That's not a vision that these countries are likely to buy into.

RAY SUAREZ: Would you be asking those neighbors, though, at the same time to embrace a lot of risk? Things are very tough in Iraq right now.

JAMES DOBBINS: They're engaged. We would simply be asking them to use the influence that they're already exerting in a way that's consistent with our own objectives rather than at variance with it.

The whole point is that all of these countries favor an Iraq that is not in civil war and is not completely collapsed. The United States does have to project a vision of Iraq in its region that these governments could buy into.

You know, when we went into Iraq, we talked about making it a model for the region, and democratizing all the neighboring states once we finished with Iraq. That's not a vision that these countries are likely to buy into.

We have to project a vision that emphasizes sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and stability. Those are qualities that every neighboring government of Iraq can buy into and support, and those have to be the cornerstone of a reinvigorated diplomatic campaign.

The Kurdish threat

James Dobbins
RAND Corporation
The interests of the United States and the interests of the region as a whole are to hold Iraq together and to ensure that Kurdish autonomy does not become a stumbling block to the capacity of all of the elements of Iraq to stay together.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you say consistent with the U.S. vision for Iraq. For domestic reasons, do any of those countries have to worry about being seen by their own populations to help the United States get off the hook?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think it varies from country to country. The Syrians, for instance, are quite eager to have a dialogue with us, so I don't think it presents a problem there.

I think it probably does present more of a problem in Iran. In Iran, like in the United States, there are strong constituencies that don't want to have a relationship and will try to discredit any effort to have such a relationship, so it would probably have to be conducted in a more discreet fashion, as we did, for instance, at the Bonn conference in 2001.

I think you create multilateral venues in which interactions are natural, in which you meet each other in a corridor, in which you're sitting in larger groupings. And in those kinds of situations, you go off in the corner and talk occasionally until you've established enough of a common vision of what you're trying to achieve that you could pick up the telephone and have quiet conversations that don't, you know, get analyzed on the NewsHour every night.

RAY SUAREZ: Turkey is an American ally, home to an American base, yet at the same time it's very worried about what would happen if the Kurdish entity inside Iraq were to become bolder, more cohesive, stronger.

JAMES DOBBINS: That's right. And that's a concern that all of the neighbors share. I mean, if there's one thing all of the neighbors want is a united Iraq. If there's one thing that all of the neighbors oppose, it's a fragmentation of Iraq and, for instance, an independent Kurdistan or, for that matter, an independent Sunni part of Iraq.

So there are things that unite all of the neighbors. The Turks feel particularly strongly about that and would certainly be inclined to use their influence to ensure that Kurdistan doesn't move toward a greater degree of autonomy than it already enjoys.

RAY SUAREZ: But isn't Kurdistan the most pro-American part of Iraq?

JAMES DOBBINS: The United States has protected the Kurds throughout the 1990s, and the Kurds have good reason to be grateful to the United States for that.

On the other hand, the interests of the United States and the interests of the region as a whole are to hold Iraq together and to ensure that Kurdish autonomy does not become a stumbling block to the capacity of all of the elements of Iraq to stay together and to tamp down the violence.

Timeline

RAY SUAREZ: If we were to take your plan on board and put it into practice, what kind of time line are we talking about here, until these six countries see an Iraq that they can live with in peace?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, this isn't going to turn the situation around immediately, and I'm not suggesting this is an alternative to possible changes in our military strategy.

I'm suggesting that it has to accompany any decisions with respect to our military strategy, even a decision to just stay the course. Whatever we choose -- more troops, less troops, no troops, stay the course -- a reinvigorated diplomatic campaign is absolutely essential to trying to create the political conditions that every general and every member of the administration says are essential to achieve our minimum objectives in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, are they any conflicting visions, a desired future Iraq that one neighbor wants that another one just can't live with?

JAMES DOBBINS: At the broadest level of generality, no. I mean, they all support a united, sovereign Iraq that's capable of protecting its people and doesn't depend on the American troop presence indefinitely.

When you go below that, the Sunni powers, like Saudi Arabia or Jordan, want to maximize Sunni influence in the country. Iran naturally wants to maximize Shia influence. Turkey wants to minimize Kurdish influence. So they all have, you know, second-level objectives that are not entirely coincident, but they're not totally incompatible, either. You can imagine outcomes that satisfy all of those needs.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador James Dobbins, thanks for joining us.

JAMES DOBBINS: Pleasure.