So where does the Bush administration go from here?
While attending this week's summit in Egypt on Iraq, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other American officials broke a little diplomatic ice with Syria and Iran — two countries that seem to work overtime in opposing the administration's policies. The question now is what approach Rice and President Bush will take toward Damascus and Tehran following the summit in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt.
By holding a half-hour meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, Rice changed the course of U.S. policy, which had been to isolate the two key neighbors of Iraq who have opposed much that Washington tried to do there.
For more than two years, no senior American official has had a serious discussion with Syrian officials. Rice, under pressure to do everything possible to stabilize Iraq, saw that the current policy of no contact with Syria was not producing results. Thus, as she told reporters at the conference, "to develop concrete steps that could help to stabilize Iraq," she decided to have a face-to-face meeting with al-Moualem. It clearly helped that American military authorities have reported fewer foreign fighters are transiting the Syrian-Iraqi border in recent weeks.
"I thought this was an opportunity in the context of this neighbors' conference to talk to the Syrian Foreign Minister about how we see the situation and about the need to stop the flow of foreign fighters," Rice told reporters. As to where the U.S. and Syria might take this new contact, she was cautious, saying, "Let's take this one step at a time."
Mr. Bush, Rice and Pentagon officials will, of course, be watching. But the larger point is that Rice found a way to shift policy gears and meet with a foreign leader she had previously refused to see. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, co-author of the Iraq Study Group report issued five months ago which called for diplomatic interaction with Syria and Iran, told CBS News in an interview that, "I think there is a sense that we just weren't getting very far with Syria and we've got to change our tactics."
But why did she not do the same with Iran's foreign minister, who was also at the conference? Why did the administration calculate that a short three-minute conversation between the American and Iranian ambassadors to Baghdad would be the right diplomatic exchange? We do not yet have the answer to these questions. "The opportunity simply didn't arise …" for such a meeting with Iran's foreign minister, she said. It is difficult to imagine, given the tightly-scripted schedules of these conferences, that a meeting of such diplomatic and political import would be left for an opportunity to "arise."
Perhaps the administration does not think Iran's Manoucher Mottaki is the right channel in Iranian politics to carry a message to Tehran. Perhaps Washington calculated that having the Secretary of State meet with a Syrian official but not with an Iranian official would best send its message to Tehran. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who, with Hamilton, chaired the Iraq Study Group, encouraged the Bush Administration to try to split Syria away from Iran's sphere of influence. One must also allow for the possibility Rice was ready to meet with her Iranian counterpart but Tehran was not interested.
The bottom line is that Rice managed to cover both bases, using the regional goal of stabilizing Iraq as cover for her policy reversal. Although seeing America fail in Iraq would have its benefits for leaders in Tehran and Damascus, there would be a very high cost to pay as well — such as an even bigger flood of refugees fleeing across borders than there is already — and much of that cost would be felt in the neighboring states.
The Bush administration isn't going to change its position on Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, nor is it going to give up its efforts to have Syria stop helping terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.
For her part, Secretary Rice has written a new chapter on the "realist" side of her tenure, finding a way to walk through what had been a closed door with Syria — and, at the same time, taking a few more steps toward doing the same with Iran.