Wednesday, August 22

Where the hell is the war czar?

"Pundita: [re First open the checkbook] You've always harped on the need for border security in Iraq so I don't see why the US shouldn't try Lieberman's recommendations in addition to opening the checkbook and asking France to do heavy lifting with Syria.
Chicago Dan"

Dear Dan:
Pundita is seriously thinking of renaming this blog "HELLO we're at WAR." We're supposed to have a war czar, yet I don't know what he's doing to earn his paycheck. There is no strategy, no coordination of tactics, with regard to how the US treats key players outside Iraq who have influence inside the country.

Instead, we have parades of congressionals and presidential candidates shooting off their mouth with this idea and that, and making threats against this country and that. Every time they read another declassified intelligence report they go running off in six different directions. And we have different cabinet levels and agencies running around and trying this tactic and that for dealing with Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and so on.

What are we accomplishing with this chaos? Many ruffled feathers and stiff spines.

Senator Joe Lieberman was reacting to recently declassified US intelligence that Damascus international airport is the hub of transit for foreign terrorists on their way to Iraq. However, yesterday a Washington Post report noted:
Syria said this month that it had moved to increase security along its border with Iraq, including setting up fixed checkpoints, boosting patrols and tightening rules on crossings by people under age 30.
That's probably a leak from the State Department. There doesn't seem to be official confirmation of the specific actions mentioned. There's only a pledge from Assad to Maliki during their meeting yesterday that Damascus is "ready to offer everything helping in Iraq's stability."

That sounds to Pundita if there's some horse trading going on. It's worth trying to build on, which means holding off on the confrontational approach with Assad and substituting a lot of creative action.

That doesn't mean the US can't quietly ask European nations with flights into Damascus to work in closer cooperation with Syria's intelligence service, in order to flag outbound passengers who fit the terrorist profile.

But trying to pressure the European airlines into suspending flights into Damascus -- that smacks of an economic sanction; I don't think European governments would go for it. So why rile Damascus with a symbolic gesture?

Keep in mind that Syria's refugee problem now gives Damascus a big stake in tamping down violence in Iraq. Assad's biggest task is to lean on members of Syria's Baath party who are supporting Iraqi insurgents. We might help him do that if Maliki's coalition delivered on easing up de-Baathification in Iraq.

However, it's not productive to loudly signal on the world stage that we'd like to see Maliki's government vanish. Instead, decide on a substitute for Maliki and push him in backchannel ways. Many Iraqis are expecting and hoping that the US will take such action.

Returning to Syria, it could help if we promised to scare up money for a big construction project in Syria that Assad would like to see done. This could be accomplished through a development bank, although don't ask me which one at this point.

Also, the US military should offer to send advisors to work with counterparts in Syria's military. This might not get much done, but it would be an important diplomatic gesture.

If all fails after three months of really hard trying, then is the time to get nasty with Assad, but do this through State, not through a parade of congressionals. Same advice applies to dealing with Iran.

Secretary Rice once famously replied, "One war at a time," when asked about how the US should treat Iran's threat. To some extent she's ignored her advice because all theaters of the war are connected. But right now we need to gather the strands of our attention and weave them into a coordinated effort to win against the insurgents and al Qaeda in Iraq. A big part of that effort is coordination on how the US deals with governments that have a big stake in outcomes in Iraq.

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