President George W. Bush's most recent address to the American people on Iraq may be the scariest presidential message since Ronald Reagan announced that he had launched a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Reagan was just kidding. Bush is not.
Immediate reaction to the president's speech has focused on the intended increase in the U.S. troop commitment to Baghdad. However, the greatest danger posed by the Bush plan is not that of horizontal escalation in Iraq, but of vertical escalation throughout the surrounding region.
Given the level of violence in Iraq, the addition of another 20,000 U.S. troops is not likely to make much difference one way or another. Casualities — American and perhaps Iraqi — may go up as a result, but only marginally.
The far graver risk inherent in the president's plan is that the war in Iraq may spread to neighboring countries.
In December, the Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, recommended that Bush engage Iran and Syria. He is doing so — by sending an additional aircraft carrier to the Gulf and Patriot missiles to adjoining countries. This is exactly the opposite course advocated by the Iraq Study Group, which urged serious diplomatic talks rather than, or at least in addition to, military saber rattling.
The bipartisan panel also recommended that the Bush administration renew efforts to broker an Arab-Israeli peace agreement.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is visiting the Middle East in what was originally billed as an effort to promote progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But in the aftermath of the president's Jan. 10 address, administration officials are now suggesting that the main purpose of the trip is to forge an anti-Iranian coalition among the conservative governments of the region.
Perhaps most ominous are news reports that White House officials have been encouraging the Saudi government to fund anti-Hezbollah and anti- Hamas militias in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
Given the exceptionally tough tone of the president's latest remarks regarding Iran and Syria, the military moves he has just directed at them, the administration's intensified efforts to build and arm an anti-Iranian regional coalition, and the president's often repeated determination to deny Iran a nuclear capability, there is a growing danger that the current U.S.-Iranian confrontation could escalate in the coming months from harsh rhetoric and economic sanctions to military action.
The U.S. military raid upon an Iranian consulate in northern Iraq, and its detention of half a dozen Iranian officials only hours after the president's speech, only highlights the danger of such an escalation.
When one adds to these risk factors reports that the administration has begun promoting surrogate funding for "contra" militias to challenge Hezbollah and Hamas for control of the streets of Beirut, Ramallah and Gaza City, one is faced with a nightmare scenario: the prospect of an unbroken string of civil wars and failing states stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean.
It has never been likely that the United States could stabilize Iraq and destabilize Iran and Syria at the same time. Those states, by reason of their proximity, cultural affinity and blood ties have more access to and influence within Iraqi society than Americans can ever hope to achieve.
As long as the United States operates in Iraq at cross purposes with nearly all its neighbors, and particularly the most influential, American efforts to promote peace and reconciliation are unlikely to prosper.
In 1995 it would have been impossible for the United States and its allies to bring peace to Bosnia without engaging Serbia and Croatia, the two states responsible for that civil war. So it will prove impossible to stabilize Iraq without the cooperation of its neighbors, and particularly those with the greatest influence.
Of course, Serbia and Croatia did not participate willingly in the Bosnian peace process. It took concerted political pressure and economic sanctions to bring them to the table. It also took continuous engagement. In refusing to combine coercion with communication in its dealings (or non-dealings) with Iraq's neighbors, the Bush administration is making peace in Iraq less likely, and increasing the chances for war throughout the surrounding region.
James Dobbins is the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on January 17, 2007.