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Talk, Talk, Talk

Iam not sure that there is anything that we can do with our army inIraq that won't make things worse than they are. That may be anun-American sentiment. (Isn't there always something to do, andaren't we always the ones who can do it?) But what are our options?Should we "stay the course"? That only means more of the sameawfulness. Bring in more troops? That might have worked a few yearsago; now, it would only generate more resistance and make theawfulness more awful. In any case, it is politically impossible hereat home. Withdraw immediately? That would most likely bring on afull-scale civil war (no, what is going on now isn't yet afull-scale civil war). Withdraw slowly and leave behind apartitioned country? At this point, there seems no way ofestablishing the borders of the three parts or of dividing the oilrevenue short of the same civil war.

So we can't win the fight and we can't just stop fighting. And thatmeans that we are up against it: We have to talk. This has not beena talking administration. Well, there are a lot of ideologicalpronouncements, some of them actual arguments, some of themboosterism and ballyhoo, some of them a kind of selfreinforcement.But real talk with other people who have different ideas--thathasn't been common in the last six years. And, now, it isnecessary.

There have to be four sets of talks. First, talks among all thesects and factions in Iraq itself--with the United States watchingand listening but not, at least not at first, participating. If theIraqis reach some kind of rough agreement, then we should join thediscussions. It might be useful to set a deadline and threaten towithdraw our troops, but I think that the Iraqis know by now thatthe duration of our stay in their country is limited. They knowthat most Americans want to get out, and the proof of the ardency ofour wish is that pretty much any of the possible compromises thatthey might come up with would be acceptable to us (though we can'tallow a coalition of Shia and Sunni Arabs to take shape against theKurds).

Second, talks between the United States and all the neighboringstates that have an interest in the eventual outcome of the war:Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. A conference ofthese states might be useful, but it probably can't be convenedwithout bilateral talks between each of them and the United States.We have interests in common with these states--even with theIranians, as our brief Afghan cooperation indicates. The currentrefusal to talk, without conditions, to the leaders of Syria andIran is a terrible mistake. There are a lot of things we shouldn'tdo, especially at the behest of Syria and Iran, without insistingthat crucially important conditions be met-- but talking isn't oneof them.

Third, talks between the United States and its European allies abouthow to support any emerging settlement of the war--and also abouthow to limit and contain the dangers that are now pretty certain tocome with the settlement. We need Europe as a partner, but thatmust mean a real partner, ready to share responsibility for howthings go in places like the Gulf.

Fourth, and finally, talks between the Bush administration and allother factions in American politics. Maybe the Baker-HamiltonCommission represents the beginning of a discussion of this sort,but the list of participants needs to be extended to include thecurrent leaders of the Democratic Party and the growing number ofdiscontented Republicans. The outcome in Iraq is not going to comeclose to what the ideological optimists in the administration hopedfor; nor will it come close to what the imperial tough guys wanted.It is not going to be pretty from any perspective. Ultimateresponsibility for this falls--and should be made to fall--onPresident Bush and his advisers. On the other hand, the Democrats,now that they have taken control of Congress, will want to doeverything they can to avoid stab-in-the-back recriminations anddivisive debates about who "lost" Iraq. It is probably best foreveryone concerned that the endgame be a bipartisan production.That will take a lot of talking, since there hasn't been a morepartisan administration than this one in my lifetime, and Americanpolitics has not been so noisy and discordant for a long time. But,if the Bush people discover that they can talk to the Iranians, theymight find that they can also talk to the Democrats.

Talk, talk, talk--the repetition of that word commonly carries apejorative meaning. But, right now, it represents the most sensiblepolicy prescription.

Michael Walzer is professor of social science at the Institute forAdvanced Study and the co-editor of Dissent.

By Michael Walzer