December 4, 2006 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

Baker's Iraq Advice: Too High a Price

With Defense Secretary- designate Robert Gates' confirmation hearings starting tomorrow, and the Baker-Hamilton Commission report out on Wednesday, it's going to be Iraq, Iraq and more Iraq this week.

One of the most controversial issues is undoubtedly going to be the push for us to "engage" the Middle East's two biggest troublemakers. A number of political and foreign-policy luminaries say that we should be talking directly with both Iran and Syria regarding Iraq.

The suggestion has some merit, but it's also fraught with potential downsides.

Advocates of direct talks say that you have to talk to your enemies. (Call it the Don Corleone School of Diplomacy: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.) Fair enough: We talked to the Soviets during the Cold War, agreeing to some arms limits as well as to various ways to prevent accidental outbreaks of war. Such talks probably played a role in maintaining global strategic stability.

But that's not the whole story. While kissing us on both cheeks, the Soviet Union remained an enemy - maintaining its own empire in Eastern Europe/Asia, pushing to extend it to every continent. It backed our enemies in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and in both arguably kept us from achieving victory. Expect Iran and Syria to take the same two-faced approach in Iraq and elsewhere.

So, while talking with Damascus and Tehran could achieve some results in Iraq, it will most likely come at a very high price.

Neither Iran nor Syria is going to do anything for nothing, after all. They're now trying to co-opt Iraq into their sphere of influence - witness the recent normalization of ties between Damascus and Baghdad, and last week's Iraqi-Iranian presidential summit.

Of course, the first thing Tehran and Damascus will try to get their new "buds" in Baghdad to do is pull the plug on Uncle Sam. From Iran and Syria's perspective, the fewer American GIs in the region to keep them in check, the better.

The reason Iran and Syria could (conceivably) be part of the solution in Iraq is, of course, that they're now a big part of the problem. Iran is supporting the Shia militias, almost certainly including the death squads behind much of the most recent horrors. The Iranian mullahs' puppet, Hezbollah, is helping with militia training. There's solid evidence that some IEDs used to kill U.S. troops were designed and even produced in Iran

Damascus has been hosting Saddamists, and turning a blind eye to jihadists transiting Syria into Iraq, for years.

These regimes have American blood on their hands.

Still, Iran and Syria might promise "peace and stability" in Iraq - as a bargaining chip to advance other aspects of their agendas.

The Iranian mullahs would surely insist that we back off on U.N. sanctions over their bid to acquire nuclear weapons.

Syria would certainly ask us to quash the U.N. probe into the murder (probably on Syrian orders) of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. And don't even think about an investigation on Pierre Gemayel... It might also demand a green light on getting its hooks back into Lebanon. Maybe, even, the United States could deliver Israeli concessions on the Golan Heights.

Sure, there might be some benefit in engaging Syria-Iran in a regional conference that includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. That setup might be able to pressure Damascus into cooperation.

But Iran isn't taking orders from anyone these days.

In fact, it's not even clear that the Iranians are willing to talk to us. They've had plenty of opportunities to engage us, going all the way back to the Clinton administration's bid for a diplomatic opening.

Moreover, some Arab states are leery of bringing Iran-Syria inside the Iraqi tent - recognizing the trouble the "deadly duo" is causing in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Engaging Iran and Syria could cause a loss of support from key regional partners.

Never mind how Israel might feel...

Instead of engaging Iran and Syria, it might be better to build a regional coalition of Arab states to contain them. But if the president decides to engage Iran/Syria, he has to be careful that giving them a say doesn't create a lot more problems for us than it might solve.

Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

Pakistan's getting worse on the terrorism front - or maybe the problem has just grown more obvious. Either way, we've got a major terrorism threat on our hands.

Britain's domestic spooks, the MI5, revealed last month that they've foiled five terror attacks since the horrific 7/7 subway-bus bombings in London in 2005. That's great news. But now they're tracking 30 new plots, involving 200 cells and 1,600 people in the United Kingdom - mostly of Pakistani origin, according to the Fimancial Times.

Of course, those are just the plots they know of . . .

Worse, British intelligence said they believe that al Qaeda is regrouping in Pakistan, which could put the United Kingdom - because of its substantial South Asian ties - at significant risk of more terrorism.

And MI5 doesn't believe that Britain is al Qaeda's lone target by any means: It could easily be a stepping stone for Pakistani-originated/assisted terror attacks elsewhere, including in the United States (still al Qaeda's No.1 mark), Canada and continental Europe.

We've already had a close call on that nightmarish front: Last summer's plan by home-grown, U.K.-based al Qaeda acolytes to bring down 10 or so U.S.-bound airliners over the Atlantic using liquid explosives, could've killed as many or more people as the 9/11 plot.

That plan, too, had ties into Pakistan. Plus, it was even nastier than originally thought: They didn't plan to destroy the airliners over the Atlantic, but over U.S. cities - to kill as many as possible.

Then there's Dhiren Barot - the Pakistan-trained British convert to Islam. Considered al Qaeda's top U.K. operative, he was convicted last month for plotting to blow up the New York Stock Exchange and other sites with help from Osama's Pakistan crowd.

Radicalized by local imams, British recruits head to Pakistan for training. Once schooled in terror, al Qaeda's new foot soldiers return home, staying in touch with their Pakistani al Qaeda contacts who either encourage terrorism - or direct it.

MI5's director general summed it all up in a November speech: "What we see at the extreme end of the spectrum are resilient networks, some directed by al Qaeda in Pakistan, some more loosely inspired by it, planning attacks including mass-casualty suicide attacks in the U.K."

Britons make over 400,000 visits a year to Pakistan. That large volume of travel makes the United Kingdom vulnerable to penetration by not only al Qaeda, but to the Taliban or other Pakistani terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, who are all increasingly chummy.

Throw in the fact that, per public-opinion polls, at least 100,000 Britons (presumably Muslims) believe the 7/7 attacks were justified - it's enough to give MI5 permanent insomnia.

The plucky Brits are doing all they can to prevent another terrorist attack - MI5's boosted its casework by 80 percent since January. But that's not a direct answer to the Pakistan problem.

Bad enough that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf eased off the Taliban a few months ago, resulting in a 300 percent increase in attacks across the border in Afghanistan. Now al Qaeda is blossoming in the same lawless tribal regions that the Taliban uses to stage those raids.

The question has become unavoidable: Is Islamabad serious about fighting extremism and terror?

True, Pakistan has made invaluable contributions to combating al Qaeda over the past five years, capturing scores of key leaders and providing tips that led to the foiling of deadly plots, including this summer's attempted airline bombings and the Barot arrest.

And, yes, Musharraf took a political risk in late October, OK'ing the Predator missile strike against the compound thought to be hosting al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al Zawahiri for dinner. (It missed him by just hours.)

But the facts on the ground indicate that Musharraf's policy in the tribal areas isn't undermining the Taliban or al Qaeda - and may be facilitating their resurgence.

Pakistanneeds to do more to fully deny these, indeed, all, terrorist groups the use of its territory. As long as it fails, both Pakistan and the rest of the world will pay a hefty price.

Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The New York Post