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June 16, 2007

Bush Faces Crises from Palestine to Pakistan

by Jim Lobe

Four years after the emergence of the first signs of a serious insurgency in Iraq, US President George W. Bush finds himself beset with major crises stretching from Palestine to Pakistan.

With US-backed Fatah forces routed by Hamas in Gaza this week, Bush's five-year-old vision of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict now looks more remote than ever, while a new Pentagon report in Iraq suggests that his four-month-old "surge" strategy is failing in its primary objective of reducing the violence there.

Meanwhile, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, to whom Washington has provided virtually unconditional support since al-Qaeda's 9/11 attack, faces a growing popular revolt, while much of the country's tribal border regions have come under the control of forces allied with Afghanistan's Taliban.

And Iran, which senior US officials this week accused of arming the Taliban, as well as Shi'ite militias in Iraq, has continued to defy Washington's demands that it halt its nuclear enrichment program, while Tehran's regional allies, Syria and Lebanon's Hezbollah, not to mention Hamas itself, appear to have successfully withstood intensified US-led efforts to isolate them.

This week's events in Gaza, in fact, are also likely to have dealt a heavy blow to US hopes of forging an anti-Iranian coalition consisting of Israel and the "Arab Quartet" led by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Saudi King Abdullah appeared to have grown disillusioned with Bush even before the US-backed dissolution by Palestine Authority President and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas of the government of national unity whose birth was personally midwifed by Abdullah himself last March.

"There's a strongly held view among our Arab friends that we don't know what we're doing," observed ret. Amb. Daniel Kurtzer, Washington's chief envoy to Israel during Bush's first term and now a professor at Princeton University, earlier this week before Hamas' takeover of Gaza.

Al-Qaeda, which continues to enjoy the protection of its allies in Pakistan and has made the US military occupation in Iraq its primary recruiting ground, has also benefited enormously from the backlash against Washington's policies throughout the region, according to most experts here.

"al-Qaeda today is a global operation – with a well-oiled propaganda machine based in Pakistan, a secondary but independent base in Iraq, and an expanding reach in Europe," wrote Bruce Riedel, a former high-level Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst, in Foreign Affairs magazine last month.

In the article, entitled "al-Qaeda Strikes Back," Reidel, the senior director for Near East Affairs in the White House from 1997 to 2002, predicted that the group would likely set up new operations in northern Lebanon and Gaza and eventually try to provoke "all-out war" between the US and Iran as part of a "grand strategy" aimed at "bleeding" Washington in much the same way that US-backed mujahadin and their Arab allies bled the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Indeed, like Jason of Greek myth, Bush has sown dragon's teeth throughout the region with a predominantly military policy, particularly his decision to unilaterally invade and occupy Iraq, even as he encouraged right-wing governments in Israel to indulge their propensity for using force to resolve problems with their neighbors.

But, unlike Jason, it looks increasingly doubtful that Bush can subdue the militant forces that have sprouted from those seeds and appear to grow stronger with each passing day.

Israel, which last year fought a disastrous war in Lebanon promoted and prolonged at the behest of Washington's hawks and now facing a Hamas-dominated Gaza on its southern border, also appears increasingly vulnerable.

Regional specialists, including Riedel and Kurtzer, have long argued that resuming a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process that could offer Palestinians tangible hope for gaining their own state in the not-too-distant future – or what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called a "political horizon" – could be the single most important step toward reversing the region's radicalization that Washington could make.

So the big question now is how the US and Israel will react to the latest events in the Palestinian territories – a subject that will almost certainly top the agenda when Bush meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert here next week. Of particular importance is whether they will adopt the same harshly punitive policies against a Hamas-dominated Gaza that they have applied to the Palestinian government since Hamas defeated Fatah in the January 2006 elections.

Already, neoconservatives and other hawks are clamoring for a tough policy consistent with that of the past five years, insisting not only that the US lead an diplomatic and aid boycott against Gaza, but that it also shelve any plans for resuming a peace process, even with Abbas.

"(S)ince Palestinian politics have clearly returned to a pre-1993 status, so must Western and US policy. This means no Western aid and no diplomatic support until their leaders change policies," wrote Barry Rubin, director of a Likudist think tank in Jerusalem in Friday's Wall Street Journal.

"Hamas is the enemy, as much as al-Qaeda, because it is part of the radical Islamist effort to seize control of the region, overthrow anything even vaguely moderate, and expel any Western influence," he argued.

But others insist that such an approach would play into the hands of the region's radicals, including al-Qaeda.

"The US needs urgently to rethink its failed policy in the Middle East," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who directs the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation (NAF) here and who has decried the administration's efforts to weaken and eventually overthrow Hamas.

"In its failed effort to pursue regime change in Palestine and prevent Palestinians from embracing Hamas, the US is driving them instead into the arms of al-Qaeda," he said.

Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish group, also called for the administration to resist the hawks' advice and reassess its policy. "We urge the US, Israel, and the international community to not repeat the mistakes of the past 18 months, with policies predicated on the now clearly discredited notion that the Hamas failure in government will lead it to disappear from the Palestinian political scene," it said.

(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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