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Syria, Iran and Russia Stir Up Trouble

The Journal Editorial Report

Paul Gigot: This week on "The Journal Editorial Report," does the path to success in Iraq lie in negotiations with Syria and Iran? And Bush and Maliki pledge to accelerate the transfer of control to Iraqi forces, as the debate rages over what kind of war we're fighting and who we're fighting against. Plus, the mysterious death of a former Russian spy leads to the discovery of radiation on international flights and claims of another poisoning attempt. That topic, plus our weekly "Hits and Misses," but first, these headlines.

Gigot: Welcome to "The Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker, will release its findings this Wednesday. And the commission will reportedly recommend that the United States open up direct talks with both Iran and Syria to stop the violence in Iraq.

Joining me now is former envoy to the Middle East and FOX News contributor Dennis Ross. Mr. Ross, welcome to the program.

Ross: Nice to be with you.

Gigot: So what do you think of the idea of engaging Syria directly in talks to help us in Iraq? Is there much chance of this working?

Ross: Well, I look at it from two different standpoints. I think, first of all, we have to ask, What is it that the Syrians or the Iranians could actually do for us in Iraq? And I think we have to understand that principally they are spoilers. They are not fixers. So I would be careful not to invest too much in what we expect that they could actually produce.

The Syrians today are not responsible, and really not in a position to stop, what's going on in Anbar Province. The Iranians may well have help to build up the militias, certainly the Badr organization and the Mahdi Army, but they're self-sustaining at this point. So they might be able to influence them to some extent. But to think that they can turn them on and turn them off, I think is an illusion.

So that really leads to the second point: What do you expect from them? And I would say, if you don't expect too much, then you shouldn't invest too much in it. Treat them like you treat all the neighbors. Have them involved from the standpoint of trying to limit what might go on in the inside. But don't expect that they are going to be able to resolve what's happening within Iraq.

Gigot: But is there anything that we could give, say, Syria and President Bashar Assad that he would say, You know what, yes, this is terrific. This is in my interest, so I'm willing to do whatever I can at least to try to help slow the violence in Anbar Province--anything we can give him?

Ross: Well, there are things we could give him. But I don't think they are the things we want to give him. One, he wants to control Lebanon again. That's certainly not something we should have in mind. Two, he wants the Golan Heights back, and here again, you are not going to trade what he can do in Iraq--which is, I would say, minimal--for what are very big gains for him. Including him, along with everybody else, not singling him out, is one thing. But investing too much, I think we should be very careful about.

Gigot: Let's talk about Lebanon, because a lot of people say that that is now close to civil war again. What role is Syria playing in fomenting that trouble, and is there anything we can do to stop them from doing that?

Ross: Well, I think the answer is huge. I mean, there's no question right now that they're doing everything they can to try to block the international tribune. One of the reasons that you see the trouble in Lebanon right now is that the Syrians don't want the international tribune, which would prosecute those responsible for the killing of former Prime Minister Hariri--they don't want that to go ahead. The government of Lebanon has to be able to adopt it, accept it. So they're trying, in fact, to impede that.

Could we do something? I think we have to look at the Syrians from what I would call the standpoint of concentrating their mind. They have to understand what they lose by their behaviors. Right now, our posture has been to be tough rhetorically but unfortunately soft practically. We warn them, but there's never a consequence for their misbehaviors. Now, I understand that when you engage somebody, it's important to sort of prove to them what they stand to lose. It's also fine to say if you change your behavior here's what you can get. I'm all for being prepared to say to them you can get a serious process on negotiations on the Golan Heights, but only if you're giving up your support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

Gigot: Well, but when you say consequence, you are essentially talking about a stick for bad behavior. What kind of consequences are you talking about? What's realistic?

Ross: Well, I'll give you a good example. The Congress, several years ago, adopted or passed a law called the Syrian Accountability Act. To this point, the administration has not been prepared to see it implemented in all of its aspects. Now, if in fact it was fully implemented, it would put the Syrians in a position where anyone who wanted to do business in Syria would have a hard time doing business here.

Now, it seems to me, if we were to, one, do that; two, if we were to work with the Europeans, who after all have forces on the ground in Lebanon right now--Hezbollah is being resupplied with arms through Syria, so they should have an interest in not having their forces exposed--it would seem to me that in a collective approach, the United States and the Europeans, we could go to the Syrians and say, Don't cut off Hezbollah, you get cut of economically.

The Syrians do not have a strong economy. The Europeans are an economic lifeline to them. If they really know they're going to be isolated, at least they know what kind of price they pay. Right now they haven't experienced any price.

Gigot: I think the president imposed the two weakest sanctions under the Syrian Accountability Act. You're saying he should have gone the full gamut and imposed the whole string of them, and that might have gotten President Assad's attention.

Ross: I agree. I think the point here is--I don't know what the value is of offering or making big threats if there's never a consequence for having made the threat. I mean, if you want to get Bashar Assad to change his behavior, he has to see what he loses. If he's always warned but he never pays a price, why would he change his behavior?

Gigot: All right. Dennis Ross, thanks for coming.

When we come back, the Iraqi prime minister says his forces will be able to take control of security in the country by June. Plus, the poisoning death of a former Russian spy grips governments from London to Moscow. Our panel weighs in on those topics, and our "Hit and Misses" of the week, when "The Journal Editorial Report" continues.

Gigot: Welcome back. In Amman last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared that Iraqi forces would be ready in six months to take full control of security in the country. President Bush assured Maliki that the U.S. is not looking for a, quote, "graceful exit," unquote. Meanwhile, the domestic debate continues over the nature of the conflict and the identity of the enemy.

Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor Dan Henninger, as well as editorial features editor Tunku Varadarajan and editorial board member Rob Pollock.

Rob, the Iraq Study Group reports this week. How do you think it's going to change the debate--the American debate--and U.S. policy on Iraq?

Pollock: Well, at this point it doesn't look like it's going to change things much. I mean, what were people expecting out of the Iraq Study Group? Essentially, they were expecting two things. They were expecting to sort of gracefully draw down troops in Iraq as part of a larger solution that included regional talks with Iran and Syria. If you listen to what President Bush said in Jordan this week, he doesn't sound very enthusiastic about either of those things. In fact, he said people for a graceful way out short of victory have no realism to their thinking.

Gigot: Yeah, it was a stunning comment, really. "The business about a graceful exist just simply has no realism to it whatsoever." That sounds like a deliberate attempt to distance himself from whatever the study group comes up with.

Henninger: Yeah, and I think maybe appropriately so. There's a kind of absurdity at the center of this study group. There've been leaks about his their findings. And one of the things that came out was--you've got 10 members of the group, five Democrats and five Republicans. The five Democrats apparently immediately put on the table that they wanted a date-certain deadline, maybe the end of next year, to pull the troops out. The Republicans resisted that. And apparently what is going to come out of this group is a compromise.

This is a magisterial study? It's just a couple of--two groups of politicians who decide to split the difference and gives it to the president?

Gigot: Yeah. Withdraw, but no timetable for the withdrawal.

Tunku, what about their other big idea, apparently, which is the direct engagement with Syria and Iran? You heard Dennis Ross be skeptical about it. What about you?

Varadarajan: I think that, again, that initiative will go nowhere because neither Iran nor Syria has an incentive to help us out, and every incentive to hurt us. The biggest weakness with the Baker-Hamilton study group--I love these phrases, I don't know where they get them, study group--is that they're based not on a profound knowledge of the region or of Iraq, but on domestic political considerations.

Gigot: Sure, Rob.

Pollock: Yeah, and there's one other supposedly big idea that was on the table. It was pointedly rejected by Bush and Maliki this week. And that is the partition of Iraq into three separate Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni entities. Both the prime minister and the president agree that that would, if anything, only foment more violence. Again, we're sort of back to square one, which is training Iraqi troops to take over a unified country.

Henninger: On that point, I want to make a prediction. In the leaks, down at the bottom of it, you see the group may propose embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi troops. Also leaked this week was a memo from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to the President, based on his visit and talks with Maliki. The New York Times published the text of that memo. That memo four times suggests embedding some U.S. troops with Iraqi battalions. And I'm convinced that that's what's going to come out of this process. That we are going to withdraw down American troops but embed about 60 advisers in every Iraqi battalion as force multipliers.

Gigot: Well, some of that imbedding has already taken place. What they are talking about is doing it much more systematically, much more ambitiously, and doing it to build up Iraqi forces, even well beyond the 30,000 or so that we're already talking about. There's no question that Iraq needs more forces. The question is, is it going to be American forces or is it going to be more Iraqi forces, or some combination of the two?

Pollock: Well, clearly the Iraqis want it to be more Iraqi forces.

Gigot: And ultimately, that's what it has to be.

Pollock: And that what it has to be. But Maliki said this week--it may be unrealistic, but he said we'll be ready to take over security by the middle of 2007. That's a good goal for him to have, even if it isn't realistic.

Varadarajan: Yeah, and clearly, Iraq needs more forces. But I need to get a kick in here. Does it need Jim Baker is the question. You know, the irony here is that an enterprise that started out in such a blaze of idealism--remaking the Middle East, democracy in Iraq--is now in the hands of Jimmy Baker, man with not a single idealistic bone in his body.

Gigot: There's a lot of criticism, Rob, about Prime Minister Maliki, that maybe he's not the man for the job. This is the man who President Bush ultimately tried to put in this job. He is a Shiite. He is not a religious orthodox Shiite. Is he up to the job?

Pollock: Look, I mean, he's what we've got. He's a religious Shiite but doesn't wear a turban. He seems like a pretty decent fellow. Does he have a lot of executive experience? No. Is he learning on the job? Hopefully. And I think we have to stick with him.

Gigot: Is it possible that we should try to support somebody else in Iraq?

Henninger: I don't think so. I think the nature--they keep talking about how this is a coalition government. Coalition, by definition, means it was elected. And I think the insurgents decided the way to impede the operation of a coalition government is to engage in this sort of barbaric violence. Any nascent government would have difficulty functioning under these circumstances, and I don't think we would improve things by replacing Maliki.

Gigot: An interesting idea floated this week, the so-called 80% solution, which is coming out of the State Department, of all places, which talks about the U.S. supporting the 80% of the population which are Shiite and Kurds, as opposed to the trying to placate, overplacate, the 20% that are Sunnis. Is this idea--the State Department is not known for creative thinking. Is this an example of it, though?

Pollock: I think it is. Look, I'd argue that of the problems to this point is we've bent over backwards to appease the violent Sunni factions to bring them into the political process. And this has created a lot of mistrust among the 80% of the population, the Kurds and the Shiites, who were very happy that we came into Iraq. That was a really dumb thing to do. I think we have to go back to the 80% that are our solid allies and say We're with you, and we're also with any nonviolent Sunnis who want to come along, but we're not going to appease the terror groups.

Gigot: All right. The last word has to be Rob, thanks. We'll be back after this short break.

Coming up next, the plot thickens in the Russian spy poison mystery, as thousands of airline passengers learn they could have been exposed to deadly radiation. That, and our "Hits and Misses" of the week, when "The Journal Editorial Report continues.

Gigot: The mysterious death by radiation poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko took another bizarre turn this week when aides to former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar claimed that he was recovering from a poisoning attempt. This revelation came as British officials announced they have identified no fewer than 12 locations that show traces of radiation, including two British Airways planes and a Russian commercial jet. Thirty-three thousand airline passengers and 3,000 crew are reportedly being sought for radiation testing.

Tunku, what does the Litvinenko poisoning tell us about Vladimir Putin's Russia?

Varadarajan: It's been kind of a diabolical epiphany for us. We've finally, I think, woken up to the depth of the rot in Russia. And so far, the murders--the shortened life expectancy of critics--has been confined to Russian home turf, but now that you've started having people murdered in London, we've awoken to the danger in our midst, I think, and quite spectacularly in this case.

Gigot: Rob, you agree with that?

Pollock: There's a sort of bizarre balancing act. If you assume the Kremlin did this--and that's sort of the Occam's razor explanation--there's a bizarre balancing act to political murder. On the one hand, you sort of want to send a message and make it clear who did it. On the other hand, you don't want to make the whole thing so bizarre and obvious that you almost guarantee some kind of negative political response. And that's what you've got here. The murder weapon, polonium 210, is something that almost had to come from a state. You've got traces of it all over the U.K., all over British Airways airplanes; not only is Scotland Yard involved, but the FBI is now involved. It's almost as if the West is going to have to respond now.

Gigot: Yeah, there have been murders of Russian journalists inside Russia, including the woman, Anna Politkovskaya, the very brave journalist who was doing reporting about Chechnya. But this is taking it to London--as Rob says, brings in a whole new level of global scrutiny. Why do it?

Henninger: I think you do it because this is the way Vladimir Putin has decided to make Russia a player again on the world stage. His strategy is to return Russia to great-power status, and the way you do that now is not by being part of the solution in world affairs, not by being good. It's by being a bad boy, like the Iranians or the North Koreans. If you are bad, if you behave like that, the United States feels it has to do business with you; they have to talk with you.

Gigot: Boy, that sounds like the forces of disorder are being unleashed here. I mean, is that what we are talking about? Is Russia really taking that bad a turn, Tunku?

Varadarajan: What to me is interesting is here is that this shows both Putin's strength, as well as his potential weakness. We are heading to 2008 when, by the Russian constitution, he has to give up office.

Gigot: And he's said he's going to--he's not going to run again.

Varadarajan: He says that. But we can never take him at his word.

Gigot: What about the U.S. relationship with Russia and Russian foreign policy? They are helping Iran with nuclear energy. They're blocking sanctions against Iran at the U.N. for enriching plutonium. They're harassing Georgia, the state nearby, and obviously playing energy politics with what they supply Europe. How should the West respond to this kind of foreign policy?

Pollock: Well, look, I think the list of things you ticked off shows that the rot runs a lot deeper than Vladimir Putin. You're got institutions--the whole foreign policy apparatus of Russia as well as their intelligence apparatus--that are in many ways carryovers from the old Soviet Union, that are pursuing essentially the same disruptive foreign policies, like you said, supporting Iran; they were one of Saddam's biggest allies. You know, these people, these institutions, not just Vladimir Putin--this whole institution is not friendly to us.

Varadarajan: I think the murder of Litvinenko is the least of Russia's global mischief right now. I mean, we have a nuclear armed, fascistic, unitary imperial state that's working to frustrate the U.S. interests everywhere.

Gigot: Well, if that how you describe it, he just hosted a G-8 Summit, the pinnacle of the democratic--organization of democratic states. Was that a big mistake to let him not only host that, to become part of this club?

Henninger: Well, I agree with Tunku that--I think the time has come to make some decisions here. Putin is basically benefiting from the reforms that Yeltsin put in place. Yeltsin had the economy growing from the bottom up, by and large. He tried to privatize it. It was imperfect. Putin has obviously been imposing the state. Gazprom has been taking over energy companies. Their state is buying in energy companies, so that it's becoming a more state-oriented nation. And he does not deserve the participation in G-8. They probably no longer deserve entry in the WTO. And I think those are the kind of areas in which we're going to have to push back. As Dennis Ross was saying in that interview, there has to be consequences for this kind of behavior.

Gigot: Briefly, Dan, you would even block entry in the World Trade Organization, which arguably engages it in rulemaking and global norms of trade and contracts, which could help to could help Russian rule of law? Why do that?

Henninger: Because they're going in the opposite direction. Putin is reordering the Russian economy in a way that doesn't allow it to participate in the WTO.

Gigot: All right, Dan, last word.

We'll be right back with our "Hits and Misses" of the week.

Gigot: Winners and losers, picks and pans, "Hits and Misses," it's our way of calling attention to the best and the worst of the week.

Item 1, Joe Biden takes a shot at Mexico. Dan?

Henninger: Yeah, Joe Biden, who of course is thinking of running for president again, was in South Carolina this week where he dropped a rhetorical A-bomb on Mexico, calling it a "corrupt erstwhile democracy." Erstwhile? You know, erstwhile is one of those words that people use when they think it's just going to mean bad about a place. But Mexico just held a presidential election, which was widely regarded as one of the most honest on the planet. So I think Joe Biden, the erstwhile presidential candidate, maybe ought to choose his words a little more carefully. But don't hold your breath.

Gigot: All right, Dan. Next, a hit for the pope. Tunku?

Varadarajan: Yeah, this has been an exquisite episode. Benedict XVI went to a country where the official creed, Kemalism, is in fact more hostile to Islam than he is. There's an irony here. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was certainly more unfriendly to his own religion than Benedict XVI has been accused of being. But the Turks should be applauded for allowing the pope's visit, and for allowing their citizens to demonstrate against him.

Gigot: All right, thank you, Tunku.

Finally, U.S. currency is found guilty of, all things, discrimination--Rob?

Pollock: Yeah, stop the presses, Paul--the Treasury printing presses, that is. U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson--a Clinton appointee, in case anyone was curious--ruled this week that the federal government discriminates against blind people by refusing to follow other enlightened countries and instead, printing paper money in only one size and shape and color. Now look, obviously we have to be sympathetic to the difficulty that blind people might have with this. But we're talking about not just retooling the Treasury printing presses, but basically every ATM and vending machine in the country. This is an expensive solution, and probably it's something that ought to be democratically debated, not decided by some activist judge.

Gigot: Quickly, what's going to happen? Be overruled by an appellate court?

Pollock: My guess is yes.

Gigot: All right. I think you're right, Rob.

That's it for this week's edition of "The Journal Editorial Report." Thanks to Dan Henninger, Tunku Varadarajan and Rob Pollock. I'm Paul Gigot. Thanks to all of you for watching, and we hope to see you all right here next week.


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