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November 30, 2006

Bush Seems Determined to
Stay the Course

by Jim Lobe

Despite a growing and virtually universal consensus both in America and abroad that the United States must engage Syria and Iran if it hopes to stabilize Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush appears determined to ignore Baghdad's two key neighbors as long as possible.

That is increasingly the assessment of analysts in Washington who had been hopeful that both the Democratic sweep of the midterm congressional elections earlier this month, as well as Bush's decision to replace Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld with former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Robert Gates, would incline the president toward a more accommodating stance.

In particular, it had been thought that those two developments would make the anticipated recommendation by the congressionally mandated, bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker – that Washington actively promote and participate in regional negotiations on Iraq that would include Iran and Syria – politically irresistible. Its long-awaited report will be released next Wednesday.

But recent statements by Bush and other senior administration officials, as well as the departure of a key "realist" adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have fueled growing speculation that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney hope they can still prevail in Iraq without having to sit down with the two "evildoers."

Indeed, that appeared to be the message Bush himself wished to convey Tuesday at a NATO summit in Riga where he recommitted the U.S. to support for Iraq's "young democracy" and vowed not to withdraw U.S. troops "until the mission is complete."

"He has no intention to change his policy in Iraq," Pat Lang, a former top Middle East analyst at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), concluded after reviewing Bush's remarks.

In the same appearance, Bush also appeared to rule out talks with Tehran and Damascus under present circumstances.

"Iran knows how to get to the table with us. That is to verifiably suspend their [uranium] enrichment programs," he said, stressing, however, that he had no objection to direct talks between the Iraqi leaders, such as those carried out over the weekend in Tehran by President Jalal Talabani, and their counterparts in Iran and Syria.

The New York Times described Bush's comments as "laying the foundation to push back against" the ISG's anticipated recommendations, an assessment that echoes recent suggestions by senior officials, including Bush himself, that the ISG is just one of a number of ongoing reviews of the situation in Iraq that the administration will consider in the coming weeks.

The 10-member ISG, which began its work last spring and has been meeting to reach its final conclusions behind closed doors in Washington this week, is co-chaired by Baker and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

Its mainly centrist membership is reportedly divided, largely along partisan lines, on a series of options regarding strategy in Iraq, ranging from a gradual draw-down of the 150,000 U.S. troops to a short-term "surge" of additional forces to pacify Baghdad followed by greatly intensified efforts at training Iraqi forces.

But leaks from the group suggest that the members are approaching consensus that the situation in Iraq and U.S. influence there have deteriorated to such an extent that Bush's definition of "victory" – creating a functioning democratic state – is at this point beyond Washington's capacity to achieve and that the best that can be hoped for is to stabilize the country with the help of its neighbors

To that end, the group has reportedly reached agreement on the necessity of convening a regional forum, much as was done for Afghanistan after the Taliban's ouster there in 2001. Such a forum, in the group's view, would have to include both Syria and Iran, which is believed to enjoy considerable influence with the majority Shi'ite parties and their militias.

According to some reports, the group may go yet further by calling for such a forum – not unlike the 1991 Madrid Conference that Baker convened after the first Gulf War – to include Israel as part of a regional security initiative designed not only to address Iraq, but also to help midwife a viable Palestinian state, as called for with growing urgency by Washington's three closest Arab allies, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan.

While Gates, a former ISG member until his nomination to replace Rumsfeld, and Rice are believed to support both ideas, they are strongly opposed by both Cheney and the senior Middle East director on the National Security Council, Elliot Abrams. With Rumsfeld's departure, their offices remain the last strongholds of neoconservative influence in the administration.

Their pro-Likud supporters in think tanks and the media, notably the Weekly Standard and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, have carried out an increasingly intense public campaign against the ISG since Baker announced in mid-September that the group would meet with senior officials of both Iran and Syria.

Depicting any engagement with Iran or Syria as "appeasement" and "capitulation," these critics have warned that such a move would only encourage Islamist radicals – both Shi'ite and Sunni – and Israel's foes in the region and further diminish whatever influence the U.S. retains there.

"Reduced to its essence, the Baker-promoted regional strategy is a euphemism for throwing Free Iraq to the wolves in its neighborhood," wrote Frank Gaffney of the pro-Likud Center for Security Policy in the Washington Times this week. "Among the other predictable casualties of the regional strategy will be the people of Israel."

Baker, who has been seen as the architect of what has been described as a "realist" makeover of the administration's foreign policy apparatus, has naturally rejected these attacks. "[I]n my view, it's not appeasement to talk to your enemies," he said last month.

But they may yet be hitting home with Bush, who apparently is not yet ready to accept the increasingly widely held view that Washington's position in Iraq and the region as a whole has become so weak that, without some help from Damascus and Tehran, it will be unable to stop a full-blown civil war that could well spread beyond Iraq's borders.

That may in fact have been the conclusion of State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow, a longtime Rice collaborator and influential "realist" strategist who, like Baker, has advocated greater flexibility in Washington's diplomatic stance on a range of issues, particularly in the Middle East and Northeast Asia. To virtually everyone's surprise, Zelikow announced this week he will return to his teaching post at the University of Virginia Jan. 1.

While Zelikow insisted that his decision was due primarily to financial factors, some analysts suggested that someone with his ambition must have been discouraged by the prospects for seeing his ideas accepted.

"My hunch as to the real reason that he is leaving is that he is fed up with having all the reasonable/constructive ideas in the administration and having little clout to implement them with 'Cheney's gang' shutting him and the Rice team down so frequently," according to Steven Clemons, head of the American Strategy project at the New America Foundation.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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