Bogged down in the Iraq quagmire, the Bush administration is promoting a grand international conference to help it get unstuck. But the wider aims are unclear.
The details remain vague and contentious. On the guest list are Iraq's neighbors, Britain and other European countries, plus the Arab League countries, Russia, China and Japan. The meeting may take place next month or in November. The venue could be Amman, Jordan; Cairo, Egypt; or even Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The French, different as ever, say it should be held at the U.N. For obvious reasons, a British official pointed out, this improvised concert of nations will not be convened in Iraq itself.
Those hoping for a modern-day Congress of Vienna may be disappointed. More likely, the meeting will mark another belated U.S. attempt to gain broad international support for its Iraq strategy. The bottom line is whether any tangible help will be forthcoming.
The U.S. insists that Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, is in charge of the project. "This is something the Iraqis are taking the lead in putting together," a U.S. spokesman, Adam Ereli, said. According to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, "It's what Allawi wants, and it's going to be his meeting."
But Powell indicated that Washington had already set the agenda. The conference should aim to boost the political process leading to January elections and a new constitution, encourage full democratic participation, and end the meddling in Iraq by neighboring states, he told CNN.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, has got a different perspective. Discussion of a withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops was not in the conference script, he told the Financial Times. A premature pullout would be "disastrous." But the governments in the region that want the Americans to leave could hasten that end by cooperating in the conference, Zebari said. "We want to tell them: 'You want these forces to leave; we also don't want them to stay indefinitely. So help us.'"
France's foreign minister, Michel Barnier, is more forthright. He said this week that France and Russia, which opposed the war, had jointly proposed a conference last year. Now the issue of withdrawal is unavoidable. "It is undoubtedly one of the questions which must figure on the agenda of such a conference if we want it to take place and ... to succeed." France also proposes that all Iraqi forces, including armed insurgents, should be included in the political process -- which would undoubtedly make for a stimulating get-together.
Britain's line is more prosaic. "It's obviously a good thing that neighbors sit down and talk rather than fight," a government official said. "The idea of getting the P5 [the five U.N. Security Council permanent members] on board is to put some 'oomph' behind the political process. What we want is support for the process in place, not an unpicking of what's already been decided."
The floated plan may yet be torpedoed by old suspicions and political machinations. U.S. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has long pushed for an international summit on Iraq, an idea resisted until now by the President Bush. If the conference happens before the U.S. elections on Nov. 2, as Powell hopes, the Democrats fear it will be exploited for partisan advantage.
Countries that opposed the war will also be reluctant to participate if that is seen as simply legitimizing U.S. policies in Iraq and the wider Middle East, especially in Israel-Palestine. "The U.S. can't have it both ways," Chatham House Middle East expert Rosemary Hollis said. "It says the right way is our way. But at the same time it acts like it is an international arbiter, as if it were the U.N."
Nor is there a universal desire to rally round Allawi. A former CIA protege, he has strongman tendencies that have raised doubts about his commitment to democracy. And democracy, supposedly, is what it is all about.