With just over 18 months left in office, the administration
of U.S. President George W. Bush appears once again to be moving in a more "realist"
direction in its dealings with the rest of the world, including the Middle East.
The most obvious sign came during this week's regional meeting in Sharm El
Sheikh, Egypt, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent a 30-minute tete-a-tete
with her Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, reportedly focused on securing
greater cooperation from Damascus on sealing its border with Iraq.
It was the first bilateral cabinet-level encounter between the U.S. and Syria
since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik
Hariri, in protest of which Washington recalled its ambassador from Damascus.
While Rice later insisted that her meeting differed from last month's controversial
visit to Damascus by Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy
Pelosi because the discussion was both confined to Iraq and no photographers
were present to record the occasion, most analysts here saw it one as the latest
and potentially most significant in a series of tentative steps toward
implementing key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), co-chaired by
super-realist James Baker.
"Gee, all of a sudden meeting with the Syrian government is not an act
of high treason," wrote Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University
of Michigan on his influential blog, who noted that Rice had even sought Pelosi's
advice before setting out on her trip.
"I can only think that Condi's meeting with Mouallem is a sign that (Vice
President) Dick Cheney's grip on power inside the White House is slipping badly,
and that Condi has Bush's ear on the need to engage."
Cheney, the leader of the administration's hawks, had publicly condemned Pelosi's
visit to Damascus as "bad behavior," while some of his neoconservative
allies outside the administration even called for her prosecution under a 200-year-old
law that makes it a crime for individual citizens to communicate with hostile
foreign governments to influence their behavior
Cheney, who is still smarting from Bush's approval following a personal
appeal by Rice of a controversial nuclear deal with North Korea in February,
suffered another setback this week when the White House announced the resignation
of Deputy National Security Adviser J.D. Crouch, II, a veteran hard-liner who
has overseen the day-to-day management of the National Security Council (NSC)
during Bush's second term.
Crouch, who served first as assistant secretary of defense for international
security affairs and then as ambassador to Romania, during Bush's first term,
chaired the interagency deliberations that led to the adoption of Bush's "Surge"
strategy to send some 30,000 more troops to Baghdad beginning in February.
He first worked for the vice president when Cheney headed the Pentagon under
former President George H.W. Bush. In that capacity, Crouch, long a proponent
of developing new nuclear weapons and missile defense systems, helped prepare
the 1992 draft Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) overseen by then-Undersecretary
of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and the vice president's future chief of staff, I.
Lewis Libby, both of whom played key roles in Bush's first term.
The DPG draft, which was leaked to the New York Times and subsequently
repudiated by the elder Bush administration, called, among other things, for
Washington to pursue military dominance in and around Eurasia, carry out preemptive
attacks against potential treats, and rely on ad hoc alliances rather than multilateral
mechanisms, such as the U.N. or NATO, to promote U.S. interests ideas
which were incorporated 10 years later in the younger Bush's 2002 National Security
The announcement of Crouch's departure was particularly remarkable given the
widely reported and as yet unsuccessful search by his boss, National
Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, for a so-called "war czar." This
would be someone with sufficient stature and clout to ensure that White House
directives on the conduct of the U.S. "war on terror," especially
in Iraq and Afghanistan, are implemented so that Hadley himself, who colleagues
say is already overworked, can address himself to other problems. His deputy's
imminent departure can only add to his burdens.
Indeed, Hadley's failure to recruit a candidate at least four top retired
military generals have reportedly rejected his entreaties to date has
added to the growing impression that the White House policymakers are increasingly
in disarray, an impression compounded by the public observation by one of the
generals, Gen. Jack Sheehan, that "they don't know where the hell they're
That situation is particularly harmful for the hawks, who have watched their
numbers within the administration decline steadily since the beginning of the
They began losing their all-important Pentagon base with the departures in
early 2005 of Wolfowitz and the neoconservative undersecretary for policy, Douglas
Feith. The replacement last November of Donald Rumsfeld by Robert Gates, a realist
and Baker confidant, at the top of the Department of Defense eliminated yet
another critical Cheney ally, while Rumsfeld's powerful undersecretary for Intelligence,
Stephen Cambone, and the assistant secretary for international security affairs,
Peter Rodman, have also taken their leave.
Libby, Cheney's savvy former chief of staff, resigned after his indictment
in October 2006 for lying to federal investigators (for which he was tried and
found guilty earlier this year), and most veteran Cheney watchers believe that
the vice president's influence over other agencies has declined as a result.
At the State Department, meanwhile, the departures this year of former UN Amb.
John Bolton and former undersecretary for arms control and international security
Robert Joseph have removed key members of the hawks' network. This leaves Cheney's
office and the National Security Council (NSC), where neoconservative Elliott
Abrams, who reportedly encouraged Israel to attack Syria during the last summer's
war with Hezbollah, rules over Middle East policy, as the last redoubt of the
It is in that context that the State Department has been moving if timidly,
according to some analysts to assert its more "realist" views on
crisis areas, first North Korea, and increasingly in the Middle East, pursuant
to the recommendations of the ISG of which Gates himself was a member until
his nomination to take over the Pentagon.
Those moves have been encouraged as well by the aggressiveness of the new Democratic
majorities in Congress since last November's elections and the growing uneasiness
of Republican lawmakers, particularly on Iraq, as the 2008 elections approach.
While Republicans have remained remarkably disciplined during the most recent
legislative battle over the imposition of a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S.
combat troops, most analysts here appear to agree that, absent measurable progress
on the ground in stabilizing Iraq, they will begin deserting Bush in droves
The regional environment in the Middle East is also forcing the administration
to move in a more realist direction, particularly as Saudi Arabia has increasingly
made clear its distaste for the hawks' strategy of tensions in the region, particularly
their hopes of further stoking tensions in Lebanon, and provoking a new round
of civil conflict between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine.
Indeed, Cheney himself is expected to get an earful when he travels to the
region this weekend to meet with, among others, Saudi King Abdullah, who shocked
the administration last month when he denounced the U.S. military presence in
Iraq as an "illegitimate foreign occupation."
(Inter Press Service)