Should America Talk to Its Enemies About Iraq?

One of the most controversial proposals the Iraq Study Group may make in its report Wednesday is that the U.S. should begin engaging its enemies, Iran and Syria, two countries with which the Bush administration has avoided direct contact in recent years.

Iran, to the east of Iraq, is led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has brazenly called for the destruction of Israel. The U.S. says he is developing nuclear weapons and training and funding militias that wreak havoc in Iraq.

Syria, Iraq's neighbor to the west, is ruled by a dictator, Bashar al-Assad, who the U.S. accuses of allowing insurgents to cross his border to wage Jihad in Iraq. The U.S. also blames Assad for supporting anti-Israel militant groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

The U.S. government considers both of these nations to be sponsors of terrorism. Thus far, President Bush has ruled out talks with both. But the Iraq Study Group may force him to again confront the question of whether or not to sit down with his enemies and ask for help in ending the mayhem in Iraq.

"I believe in talking to your enemies," said the Iraq Study Group's co-chairman, former Secretary of State James Baker. "I don't think you restrict your conversations to your friends."

America has negotiated with enemies before. President Richard Nixon, a fierce cold warrior, opened diplomatic relations with communist China. And, two years after he called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire," President Ronald Reagan opened negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev.

"By the end of Reagan's presidency, there was almost a warmth between these two men," said Christopher Preble of the CATO Institute. "In fact, the people who are now advising the president against engagement with Iran are some of the same people who are opposed to that kind of rapprochement with the Soviets."

Bush has said he will not negotiate with Iran and Syria unless they change their ways. For Iran, this means suspending its uranium enrichment program.

"They know how to get us to the table," Bush said in a joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The choice is theirs to make."

Many conservatives have denounced the expected Iraq Study Group proposal.

Danielle Pletka from the American Enterprise Institute offered her critique.

"They are proposing to turn a blind eye to the behavior of Iran and Syria," she said. "Otherwise, it would be impossible to sit down with these leaders."

Preble disagreed.

"It's not so much an issue of rewarding bad behavior," he said, "as trying to find a diplomatic solution to a problem that is now three and a half years in the making -- that the United States still does not have a way out of Iraq."

Earlier administrations have attempted to engage with Syria. Baker, himself, negotiated with the Syrians for years.

"Secretary of State Baker went to Syria for more than a dozen times," Pletka said. "His successor, Secretary of State [Warren] Christopher went more than two dozen times. … We see the results. Syria continues to be a state sponsor of terrorism. They interfere in Lebanon. They're funneling weapons to Hezbollah. And they're trying to get our soldiers killed in Iraq. Good job, guys."

Proponents of talks with Syria and Iran say it could work this time if the United States agrees to limit the talks to the topic of Iraq. Professor Gary Sick, a Middle East expert at Columbia University, said negotiations ought to focus on the nations' mutual interest -- avoiding a regional civil war.

Even limited talks, he said, offer no guarantees.

"I don't think that having a conversation regionally between the United States and Iran and Syria is a magic bullet, that somehow this is going to solve all of our problems," he said. "It is so far gone there that we're talking about desperation measures."

It's not clear that Syria and Iran could stop the violence in Iraq, even if they wanted to. In the meantime, the Iraqi government has already started independently negotiating with both Syria and Iran.