A rare crack in the fortified wall of the Bush administration’s diplomatic obstinacy seemed to appear as U.S. diplomats sat down in March with their Iranian and Syrian counterparts to discuss stability in Iraq. Foreign-policy realists of both parties hailed the move as a potential breakthrough: Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) offered a characteristically self-righteous lecture, while Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), the enigmatic might-be presidential candidate, echoed, “We will not achieve peace and stability in Iraq without a regional framework that includes Iran and Syria.”
This apparent crack in the wall turned out to be an illusion, however, as the opportunity to engage one another face-to-face represents not honest hope for progress but a platform for one-upmanship by both the United States and her regional adversaries.
Despite being targeted for attack by the same neoconservative hawks who pushed us into Iraq, Iran could afford the most happy-go-lucky attitude toward the talks, considering that, whatever their outcome, she would continue to exert substantial influence on political developments in Iraq through Shiite political parties. As Srdja Trifkovic describes the Iranian perspective, “They are playing Iraq for the long term, and they know that if they play their hand right, it may fall into their lap like a ripe fruit.” Iran will want significant incentives if she agrees to facilitate a face-saving American withdrawal from Iraq, which will be difficult to offer, considering that the United States and Iran have not had actual diplomatic ties in nearly three decades. Therefore, a polite roundtable discussion in Baghdad devoted to Iraqi security and unrelated to nuclear issues was not likely to mend years of mistrust or alter the dynamics behind a potential large-scale military invasion.
The Syrian government relishes any opportunity to dress up as a choirboy, tout its regional influence, and wax poetic on Iraq’s woes, because it has far fewer time constraints than the Bush administration does. While Bush will be gone in less than 20 months, Syrian President Bashar Assad will be on the ballot this year in a Sham referendum designed to garner him a second seven-year term. So he will be saying “I told you so” to America about Bush’s Mesopotamian Misadventure for a long time to come. Given this longevity, coupled with the White House’s demonstrated inflexibility, Assad knows that he cannot hope for a full rapprochement with the United States until Washington is remade after 2008. This means that, for the moment, Syria will use any direct diplomatic access to Washington to rehabilitate her image by appearing helpful, while loudly broadcasting her traditional grievances and positioning herself for a variety of post-Bush contingencies.
President Bush’s calculus, like Assad’s, is based on spin. By engaging in highly publicized diplomacy with Iran and Syria, he can rebut his critics who have been whining about the need for dialogue. Of course, he can later claim that the outcome of the talks strengthens his original position—that America has certain expectations regarding her enemies, who already know what they need to do—and that the March Iraqi initiative was used to reinforce the desired change in behavior. In other words, this White House likes to talk at its international adversaries, not with them, and then maintain that the entire affair was a waste of time, because the rogues never comply with the unilateral orders shouted at them. In a recent speech on U.S.-Iran relations, Senator Hagel referred to this approach as “international blackmail.”
Nevertheless, President Bush—perhaps motivated by guilt over ignoring the findings of the Iraq Study Group (ISG)—did agree to the flirtatious talks. By sitting down, however meaninglessly, with Iran and Syria, perhaps the President can at least pretend to have heeded the advice of his father’s secretary of state, James A. Baker. The trouble with the ISG and Baker’s approach, though, especially as it pertains to dealing with Syria, is that it moderately tweaks the status quo of U.S. foreign policy without challenging it in any substantial way. Baker deserves credit for recognizing the boost in America’s regional credibility that would result from a successful resolution of Israel’s land disputes with her neighbors, but how this would pay off in the Iraqi debacle, particularly in the short term, is vague.
Basically, since the Bush administration has blasted “Iran and Syria” ad nauseam, any mainstream Washington discussion, such as the ISG report, simply cannot fail to address external factors, however dubious their supposed influence (in the case of Syria) on what is essentially an internal Iraqi conflict and a fight against foreign occupiers. President Bush has painted himself into a corner by continually harping on Syria. The Syrians themselves have picked up on this and milked it for all it is worth. In a recent interview with ABC News’s Diane Sawyer, Assad took an unsubtle swipe at the Bush administration: “It doesn’t matter how strong economically or what army you have; it’s a matter of credibility. We have credibility. We have good relations with the other factions. They should trust you to be able to play a role.”
Middle East analysts could not help but chuckle at the poised assertion, recognizing Assad for having the gall to exaggerate Syria’s clout so wildly. Yes, Syria may have certain footholds in Iraq, among the now-seated politicians she sheltered from her rival Ba’ath faction during the Saddam Hussein era; in the tribes in the Anbar Province on Syria’s eastern border; and with the mercurial cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who reportedly adored his stay in Damascus a year ago and “didn’t want to leave,” as one official joked. But Syria is far from being a major powerbroker in Iraq. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and, to a lesser extent, Turkey will have to drive America’s endgame in Mesopotamia.
As far as U.S.-Syria relations go, Washington is far more obsessed with the infiltration of foreign fighters into Iraq through Syria’s eastern border. This matter pervades practically every discussion of the Iraq war, no matter who is talking. For example, during a recent high-profile congressional visit to Damascus, Princess Pelosi, as the attention-loving Speaker of the House seems to fancy herself, hunkered down with her colleagues to confront Assad on the foreign-fighter issue, even as they spited Bush by touting their faith in the ISG.
This is nothing new. As far back as 2003, the Bush administration set the tone in Washington by referring to foreign fighters as the “backbone” of the insurgency. Since then, just about everyone has followed in lockstep. Rarely will a politician, even a staunch critic of the President, forego the opportunity to slap Syria on this basis. It is a slam-dunk position on which seemingly everyone can agree: If only Syria and Iran would cease to allow free transit to insurgents, 25 million peace-loving pro-American Iraqi angels would be free to scarf down Big Macs while bopping along to Britney Spears on their iPods.
All along, however, the official word from military commanders on the ground betrayed this neoconservative fantasy, while Princess Pelosi and her colleagues in the congressional minority simply abdicated oversight. Washington representatives, including a majority of Senate Democrats who rubber-stamped Bush’s Mesopotamian Misadventure from day one, could have reshaped the parameters for Washington debate regarding Iraq and held the White House accountable on more pressing concerns, had they demonstrated a better grasp of simple arithmetic in the form of “border math.”
About two years ago, Gen. John Vines, who commanded all the coalition forces in Iraq, estimated that no more than 150 foreign fighters entered Iraq per month, mainly from Syria, though he cited Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt as the infiltrators’ main countries of origin. Divided by roughly 30 days per month, that makes an average of five new foreign fighters per day.
Apparently, no one in Congress questioned whether a handful of infiltrators per day logically posed a threat to 150,000 of the best-equipped, best-trained military personnel in the world. At that rate, about 1,800 foreign fighters enter Iraq annually. It would therefore take a whopping 75 years to reach parity with the number of U.S. troops currently in country. Even so, these mere five encroachers per day do not possess superhuman ability to engulf Iraq with violence, as the American public has been led to believe. One need not be a military expert to determine that the foreign fighters could be and should be stopped, but their infiltration is tolerated as a political scapegoat, because the American public, put to sleep by neoconservative lullabies, generally does not want to believe that the United States could sink in the swamp of Iraq on her own.
The calculations are simple. Iraq’s border with Syria is 375 miles long, or 1.98 million feet; 15,000 troops assigned to patrol the border in two 12-hour shifts would equate to 7,500 round-the-clock patrols; 1.98 million feet divided by 7,500 troops yields one fully equipped American soldier for every 264 feet. At that concentration, in a mostly barren desert area, American soldiers patrolling the Syria-Iraq border could easily spot suspicious movement and apprehend any potential terrorist, even in the dead of night.
Those 15,000 troops would create a virtual human net to stop infiltrators—quite apart from the use of infrared technology, helicopter flyovers, or human intelligence. Fifteen thousand troops may sound like a lot, but it represents less than ten percent of the total American deployment, and less even than the “Surge” on which the Bush administration has pinned its hopes for Baghdad’s security. If foreign-fighter infiltration truly presents such a major threat to stability in Iraq, we should naturally have expected U.S. forces to divert ten percent of their manpower to break this “backbone” of the insurgency. That never happened, because American military commanders have accepted all along the predominantly homegrown nature of the insurgency in Iraq.
Witless congressional staffers read the hawkish think-tank memos offered them very carefully and never bothered to investigate thoroughly or pay very close attention to the testimony of military officials who warned about the hype of foreign fighters. Moreover, the Bush administration could have solved the border problem, essentially, by outsourcing it. A three-party cooperative-patrol solution, including a 5,000-strong Syrian contingent and 5,000 Iraqi recruits, with a supervising presence of another 5,000 American troops, would have nullified foreign-fighter infiltration, while simultaneously rebuilding critical diplomatic bridges. Instead, the White House and its media allies opted at every stage to employ the inflammatory rhetoric of its “stay the course” talking points.
Chronicles readers and other Americans concerned about border security should also take particular note of Syria’s ridiculous effort to defend herself by claiming that, since the United States has great difficulty in keeping illegal immigrants from crossing the Mexican border, Syria should not be expected to seal its eastern frontier. While Princess Pelosi happily prances around the souqs of Damascus to embarrass the Bush administration, she and her colleagues fail to connect the Iraq war to illegal immigration on the U.S.-Mexico frontier. In fact, the numbers are even more staggering than the Iraqi border example. Given a 2,000-mile southern boundary, the American military manpower currently deployed to “stand with the Iraqis who have made the choice for freedom” could easily cut off illegal immigration and potential terrorist incursions completely.
Think of it: 150,000 troops divided into two 12-hour shifts would yield 75,000 round-the-clock patrols; 2,000 miles is 10.56 million feet. Dividing that by 75,000 yields one solider for every 141 feet, keeping America secure from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Sadly, the United States will continue to spend precious lives, treasure, and political capital thousands of miles from her own unprotected frontiers, so long as American policymakers remain hopelessly fixated on grandiose sentiments about “the decisive ideological struggle of our time.” Furthermore, our unwillingness to engage our adversaries in the Middle East in a substantial way has undercut America’s regional credibility dramatically. Even worse, most of the “realists” in Congress who have finally found the courage to distance themselves from the status quo do so not out of principle, but for political expediency. Tough talk on Iran and bullying Syria may score quick points in cable-news shouting matches, but without a revamped diplomatic strategy, we may not only fail to extract ourselves from Iraq honorably but soon end up scratching our heads wondering how Washington blundered its way into yet another ill-advised military boondoggle.
George Ajjan, a Republican activist and member of the Arab-American Institute’s National Policy Council, writes from Clifton, New Jersey.
This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.