Syria and Iran: Keys to Iraq Peace?

Nov. 12, 2006 — -- Despite past disagreements with Syria and Iran, if a bipartisan commission recommends talks with them to improve the situation in Iraq, the Bush administration will be open to the suggestion, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten told ABC News' "This Week."

Bolten's comments come as President Bush is slated to meet Monday with the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker. The panel is supposed to advise the president on new strategies in Iraq.

And they also come as Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain, America's ally in Iraq, is expected to recommend talks are needed with Syria and Iran to help stem the violence in Iraq. Blairs comments are expected as part of a foreign policy address Monday evening at the annual Lord Mayor's Banquet to be held at Guildhall in central London.

Baker recently indicated on "This Week" that he thought negotiating with Syria and Iran could be a strategy for improving the situation in Iraq. The commission will reportedly recommend such a solution.

"Iran and Syria have been meddling in Iraq in a very unhelpful way," Bolten told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos today. "Iranian weapons and technology have found their way into the Iraqi conflict and are being used to kill Iraqis and American soldiers. … That needs to stop.

"That said," he added, "we'll be open to what the Baker/Hamilton commission has to recommend, and we'll be trying to treat that in as open and bipartisan a way as possible."

After meeting with the president and other top administration officials Monday, the study group plans to brief Democrats on Tuesday. The group's members hope to release their final report within weeks.

Analysts Weigh In

Experts say there are no easy answers to America's troubles in Iraq.

"There's no silver bullet here," said retired U.S. Gen. Jack Keane, an ABC News military analyst. "So I think their plan will reflect a political strategy, a military strategy, an economic one and a very strong diplomatic one."

Keane is one of more than 150 experts the study group has interviewed, and he recommends that 40,000 additional U.S. troops be sent to secure Baghdad.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and co-author of "Hard Power," told ABC News that President Bush will probably attempt several approaches -- including involving Iran and Syria -- over one radical move to improve the situation in Iraq.

"A big radical change … to move millions of people around so they're not living amidst places where they're vulnerable … that kind of radical idea is not yet on the table, if it ever will be," O'Hanlon said.

"I think they'll try with a number of pragmatic approaches," O'Hanlon added. "Those are the kind of ideas they may be proposing -- a lot of second-level ideas that hopefully all together add up to something notable."

Despite exit poll figures indicating that a majority of American voters would support withdrawal of troops from Iraq, O'Hanlon said that may not be possible for Bush.

"I think that's essentially an admission of defeat, if you make that your top priority and you do it too quickly," he said.

Instead, he suggested that the president use the results of the election to set a deadline for the Iraqis to find compromise.

"I think the realistic goal here is for President Bush to say to the Iraqis, 'Listen: Look at my country's election results. My American people are losing patience with this war,'" O'Hanlon said. "You've got one good year at your last chance to make compromises across the Sunni-Shia divide.

"Try to use our partisan division, in a sense, to create a form of a credible ultimatum to the Iraqis," he added. "That's about the only way in which you could do it in a constructive way."

Although both Baker and the new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have close ties to the first Bush administration, O'Hanlon said he didn't necessarily see a trend.

"The previous Bush administration is the place where a lot of Republicans got their experience," he said. "Bob Gates and Jim Baker are two of the very smartest people from that administration. They're outstanding public servants. So in terms of having the right people advising the president, at least we have that much going for us.

"Unfortunately," O'Hanlon added, "the situation in Iraq, as we all know, is a mess."

Success Is Critical

The administration is determined to fix the problems in Iraq because the country is "critical to our national security," Bolten told Stephanopoulos.

"We need to have the public support for this effort here, but above all we need to succeed," he said. "The objective is victory in Iraq. It's absolutely critical to this country that we win this fight in the central front in the war on terror.

"Now, that doesn't mean we're not going to be adjusting tactics, listening to fresh ideas," Bolten said. "What's changed is we now have Democratic control in the Congress, and we're going to be talking even more closely than we have been in the past with the leadership there about the right way forward."

Bolten said he hoped the Baker commission would yield strategies that would bring support from both politicians and the public.

"The Baker/Hamilton commission can be very important, I hope, in helping build some bipartisan and public consensus about the way forward," he said. "Because public support is very important in this situation, where it's a very difficult situation, where we have brave young men and women putting their lives on the line."

Democrats' Strategy: Change the Course

The first thing Democrats will try to accomplish in the new term of Congress is a change in the direction of Iraq policy, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told ABC News.

"The first order of business, I believe, is to join, hopefully, with some Republicans, who I think now will emerge to press the administration to change course in Iraq by telling the Iraqis that our presence there is not open-ended," Levin said, "and that, as a matter of fact, we need to begin a phased redeployment of forces from Iraq in four to six months, to begin that redeployment."

Despite the failure of Levin's resolution six months ago that called for the beginning of troop withdrawal, he believes similar legislation could pass in the new term.

"The people have spoken in a very, very strong way that they don't buy the administration position that we are, quote, absolutely winning," Levin said. "They don't buy it. They rejected it.

"Now we have a more Democratic Congress," he added, "which I believe is willing to implement the people's will and to put some pressure on this president to change course in Iraq."

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Ohio, agreed.

"The second part of the resolution … [called] for a political settlement in Iraq, put pressure on the Iraqis to insist upon a means to distribute the oil equitably, to make sure that there's some form of federalism and to deal with the militias, and call for an international conference," Biden said.

Although the president could still veto the legislation if it passed in the House and Senate, Biden said he believed that pressure from both Republicans and the public would be enough to sway Bush.

"The only leverage we really have is international and domestic public opinion, and, most importantly, the pressure coming from his own Republican colleagues," Biden said. "The last thing the senators who are up for reelection in 2008 want is to be saddled with a continued failure in Iraq as a consequence of Republican policy.

"I have spoken to major figures in the Republican Party in the area of foreign policy," Biden added. "They are ready to join in some form of what we just talked about."

"The Baker commission is out there, as well," Biden said. "That will put pressure. I hope the Baker commission doesn't kick the can down the road and actually makes some strong recommendations, but there's a lot of pieces moving out there."

Bolten, however, told ABC News he was unsure if the president would sign on to such legislation.

"It's hard for me to see how that can be done on a fixed timetable. It's got to be done based on the conditions on the ground," Bolten said. "The important thing is that this be done in a way that the Iraqis can succeed, that we can have a democratic government there that can govern itself, sustain itself, defend itself and be an ally in the war on terror."

President Bush is willing to talk about any ideas, Bolten said, but putting a lot of pressure on the Iraqis is probably not the best solution.

"I don't think we need a lot more pressure on the Iraqis to help them do what they need to do -- but sure, we're all saying that the Iraqis need to step up and they need to get their own situation under control," he said. "It's a sovereign government. We need to treat them as a sovereign government."

ABC News' Geoff Morrell contributed to this report.