Time for a Major Diplomatic Initiative in Iraq, Middle East

The recommendations of the just released Iraq Study Group report are a sober reminder of the limitations of current strategies for stabilizing Iraq and pursuing peace in the region.The situation in Iraq has deteriorated far beyond a point where there is a reasonable military solution to the sectarian violence. The violence has also made other strategies for stabilizing Iraq, like a singular focus on standing up the Iraqi army, less likely to succeed.

Recognizing these strategic limitations, the Iraq Study Group has suggested that the time has since passed when one country alone could work alongside the Iraqi leadership to steer Iraq’s future. Rather, as the report says, “the United States should immediately launch a New Diplomatic Offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region.” This recommendation is perhaps the last best hope for war weary Iraqis and Americans alike.

This conclusion, which sits atop a list of 79 other recommendations, has set the stage for a return to diplomacy and international engagement as first-order solutions to the most vexing challenges facing the United States in Iraq and the Middle East. The group’s specific proposal that the United States and concerned parties form an “Iraq International Support Group” — consisting of all of Iraq’s neighbors, permanent members of the Security Council, a representative of the Secretary General and others — demands nothing less. After years of pursuing alternative foreign policy choices, Iraq has proved there is an urgent need for a grand commitment to effective multilateralism.

The Iraq Study Group report makes clear the consequences of rejecting this approach. “Circumstances in Iraq are ‘grave and deteriorating,’ with a potential government collapse and a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ if the U.S. does not change course and seek a broader diplomatic solution to the problems that have wracked the country since the U.S. invaded,” says the Washington Post’s opening paragraph of today’s article about the report. Indeed, as other news items have recently made clear, Iraq has the potential to morph into a wider conflict as its neighbors begin to support opposing sides of a sectarian conflict.

A renewed committment to regional diplomatic solutions for Iraq is therefore critical. But it is fair to say that the United States may not have the ability to embark on this kind of initiative all on its own. To support this ambitious proposal, the Secretary General suggested that his offices can help take on this task. Speaking to reporters following his interview with the Study Group last week, the Secretary General suggested that an international conference — akin to the 2001 Bonn Conference that brought together various stakeholders in Afghanistan — could be the forum for such diplomacy.

Convening the Iraq International Support Group would be a Herculean effort. It would require the support of Iraq’s sectarian leaders (which have not been receptive to this idea thus far) and it would require good faith engagement by relevant international actors. Most importantly, it would require a platform with enough credibility to bring all the parties to the table. And at this moment in history, the United Nations is one of the few — perhaps the only — institution in the region with enough standing to pull this off.

To be sure, renewed regional diplomacy is not guaranteed to succeed. But the alternative — a stubborn rejection of good-faith engagement with certain governments in the region — is sure to maintain the calamitous path down which the Iraq and much of the Middle East is descending.