Rule No. 1 in the Middle East is that the rational desire for peace is often perceived as weakness. Rule No. 2 is that weakness guarantees aggression.
To understand how these two rules work, consider the events of the past two weeks. In the United States, a key recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group reached the public domain: launch an aggressive diplomatic initiative to stabilize Iraq that includes direct talks with Syria and Iran.
Iraq shares two large and porous borders with its neighbors to the east and west. Syria and Iran have important confessional and ethnic ties with Iraq. Leaders in both nations ought to have an economic and political interest in halting Iraq's slide into anarchy.
In some sense, therefore, it seems perfectly rational that the United States should set aside the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, embassy hostages, support for international terrorism and nuclear proliferation in pursuit of regional stability.
But that's not the way the leaders of Syria, Iran and the Iraqi insurgency see it. The desire to entreat the mullahs in Tehran and the dictator in Damascus is a sign of weakness. The code of the bazaar is that the more someone wants something, the higher the price one can exact for it.
So it's no coincidence that once the trial balloon of diplomacy had been floated and Syrian and Iranian cooperation had been identified as crucial to solving the Mesopotamian security puzzle, Iraqis endured the bloodiest week of violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Then Syrian and Iranian proxies went to work in Lebanon to roll back the clock on the Cedar Revolution. Assassins with suspected links to Syrian intelligence murdered prominent anti-Syrian government minister Pierre Gemayel. And Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader and Iran's ventriloquist, began agitating to bring down the pro-Western government unless it ceded more power to his party.
And the diplomatic talks haven't even started yet.
The same rational principles that make Syria and Iran the keys to stability in Iraq also suggest a course of action in Afghanistan. Why not launch an aggressive diplomatic initiative to stabilize the Karzai regime by engaging in direct talks with al-Qaida?
If that suggestion seems absurd, so should the idea that Bashar Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei would help stabilize Iraq because some deep thinkers in the United States believe it would be in their rational self-interest.
The extremist regimes in Syria and Iran have their own agendas for the Middle East. And bleeding the United States and driving American forces and influence out of the region top the list.
These are non-negotiable. The United States will receive no diplomatic dividend in Iraq without indemnifying the anti-U.S. stakeholders. The intensification of violence in Baghdad and Beirut were unequivocal confirmations of the new perception of American weakness and a new commitment to aggression. The next target on the regional hit list will be Israel.
Yes, of course we must communicate with our enemies. There's no hope of reaching any kind of accord with an opponent, short of annihilation, unless some modicum of understanding exists.
But understanding does not necessarily entail diplomatic initiatives of the first order. There are more ways to communicate than only through ambassadors. And the code of the bazaar imposes severe retribution for negotiation in bad faith.
Thus far, the grand diplomacy of Iraq has only managed to spell out what Syrian and Iranian cooperation will cost the United States. To be successful, at some point the United States will need to assess the price of Syrian and Iranian intransigence.