President Bush’s decision to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq is a desperate attempt to salvage a mission that has gone terribly wrong.  Instead of persisting in a strategy that will have U.S. forces trying to referee a multisided civil war, Washington should focus on a more achievable objective: working with Iraq’s neighbors to quarantine the violence in that country as the United States adopts a strategy to withdraw all of her troops.  If we do not take steps to do that soon, the conflict in Iraq could easily escalate into a Sunni-Shiite regional proxy war that would undermine U.S. policy throughout the Middle East.  Equally troublesome, preventing such a horrific war is fast emerging as the principal argument that American hawks use to make their case that the United States needs to maintain a military presence in Iraq indefinitely.

Iraq’s neighbors are already lining up on opposite sides of the internal sectarian struggle.

Predominantly Shiite Iran has taken a great interest in political and military developments in her western neighbor.  Tehran has close ties with the two dominant Shiite political parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and has supported the even more radical Muqtada al-Sadr.  Washington has long accused Tehran of interfering in Iraq, especially by funding and arming Shiite militias, and Washington’s warnings on that issue intensified markedly in January.

There is little doubt that Iran is determined to see a Shiite-controlled government in Baghdad and would react badly if it appeared that Iraq’s Sunni minority might be poised to regain power and once again subjugate the Shiite majority.  The current Iraqi government is quite friendly to Iran, and Tehran can be expected to take steps to protect the newfound influence it enjoys in Baghdad.

But Iraq’s other neighbors are apprehensive (to put it mildly) about the specter of a Shiite-controlled Iraq.  Saudi Arabia, in particular, regards the prospect of such a state on her northern border as anathema, worrying about the impact on her own Shiite minority–which is concentrated in the country’s principal oil-producing region.  The Saudis are complaining to Washington that a Shiite “state within a state” exists inside Iraq and that the development is extremely worrisome.  There are indications that wealthy Saudis are already providing funds to Sunni forces in Iraq.  (It should also be noted that the distinction between private money and government money among members of the Saudi ruling class is, at best, hazy.)  In November 2006, the top security advisor to the Saudi regime, Nawaf Obaid, warned in the pages of the Washington Post that, if the United States did not take steps to protect the Sunni community in Iraq, Riyadh would intervene directly to do so.  Although the Saudi government disavowed that statement and terminated its relationship with Obaid, it is hard to believe that he issued such a warning if discussions about that option had not been taking place among the political elite.  A senior U.S. official told NBC News in mid-January that the Saudi government had informed Washington that it was prepared to move its own troops into Iraq if the new U.S. surge strategy failed and the violence in that country grew worse.

Other countries are also taking an active interest in developments in Iraq.  Syria retains significant ties to Ba’athist elements in Iraq and has, at the very least, looked the other way as fighters and military hardware have passed through the Syrian border to support the insurgency in Iraq.  Turkey has her own policy priority—namely, to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish republic in northern Iraq, a scenario that becomes much more likely if the rest of Iraq is engulfed in civil war.

A regional proxy war in Iraq would turn the Bush administration’s mission there into even more of a debacle than it already is.  Worse, Iraq’s neighbors could be drawn in as direct participants in the fighting—a development that could create chaos throughout the Middle East.  Washington needs to take steps now to try to head off those dangers.

The best approach would be for the United States to convene a regional conference that includes (at a minimum) Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey.  The purpose of such a conference should be to make all parties confront the danger of the Iraqi turmoil mushrooming into a regional armed struggle that ultimately would not be in the best interests of any country involved.  Washington should stress that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq’s other neighbors risk having events spiral out of control if they do not quarantine the violence in Iraq.  The U.S. goal should be a commitment by the neighboring states to refrain from meddling—or at least restrain the extent of meddling—in that country’s sectarian strife.

Realism about the role of Iraq’s neighbors, especially Iran and Syria, is essential.  Tehran and Damascus are not about to help the United States out of her dilemmas in Iraq because of a spirit of altruism.  They have no interest whatsoever in helping the United States achieve her political objective of creating a secular, democratic, pro-American Iraq.  Indeed, both governments take a perverse pleasure in witnessing Washington’s self-inflicted wounds.  Our only feasible chance of gaining their cooperation is if we can convince them that overplaying their hand may provoke direct intervention by the Saudis, Turks, and other rivals.

A regional conference must focus solely on preventing the violence in Iraq from spreading.  It should not attempt to address such issues as the Iranian nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, or democratic reforms in the Middle East.  Broadening the agenda is a recipe for failure.

Even with a restrained, limited agenda, there is no guarantee that a regional conference would be successful.  All of Iraq’s neighbors have significant incentives to try to prevent a victory by one Iraqi faction or another.  The temptation to meddle, therefore, is powerful.  Washington does have a few cards to play, however.  U.S. leaders can make it clear to Turkey and Saudi Arabia that their close ties to the United States, which both countries value highly, will be at risk if they exacerbate the chaos in Iraq.  Dealing with Iran and Syria requires the opposite approach.  Washington should convey to both countries that reasonable restraint on their part will be rewarded with improved relations with the United States, including the restoration of economic ties.

The Bush administration needs a healthy injection of realism to adopt a quarantine strategy.  The goal of preventing civil war in Iraq is already lost, and maintaining a long-term U.S. military occupation to forestall a regional proxy war is far too high a price to pay, both in money spent and American lives sacrificed.  Unfortunately, the specter of a wider war is the latest reason that the Bush administration is invoking to continue the military occupation of Iraq.  That is a foolish and perilous course.  Instead, we should make it clear to Baghdad and all other capitals in the region that the United States intends to withdraw her forces from Iraq and do so promptly.  Enlisting Iraq’s neighbors to contain the violence now and after the U.S. troops leave is the only feasible alternative to Washington continuing to play the futile role of armed babysitter.

A full-scale proxy war would be a calamity for the region and, given America’s extensive involvement in that part of the world, a major headache for this country as well.  We need an achievable, damage-limitation strategy—and soon.  Moving to quarantine the Iraq civil war is that strategy.