There was a certain end-of-an-era feeling in Washington
in the last few weeks of 2006. In the aftermath of the Republican loss of Congress
in November, interpreted by most pundits as the American public's repudiation
of President George Bush's policy in Iraq, the expectation in the U.S. capital
was that the city would enter the last stage of the post-9/11 neoconservative
The scenario outlined by insiders was the following: The Iraq Study Group (ISG)
would issue its recommendations to start gradual U.S. disengagement from Mesopotamia.
That would provide a political cover for President Bush and Congress to start
planning for the withdrawal of some troops for Iraq and for opening a dialogue
with Iran and Syria, all of which would help produce a new national consensus
at home while encouraging Washington to move in a more multilateral direction
But as we enter 2007, it's becoming clear that those earlier expectations were
quite inflated. President Bush and his top aides have insisted that the administration
will not consider the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. In fact, the White
House seems to be in the process of moving in the other direction.
It is apparently going to increase by at least 30,000 the number of U.S. troops
in Iraq. Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have also stressed
that they are not planning any diplomatic overture to Tehran or Damascus. If
anything, there are indications that the U.S. is projecting its military presence
in the Persian Gulf to demonstrate to Iran that it "means business."
Indeed, there is growing pressure on the Bush administration to "do something"
about Iran's alleged nuclear military program coming from both Saudi Arabia
and the other Arab-Sunni regimes in the region as well as from Israel and its
supporters in Washington.
In short, while the Bush administration hasn't officially rejected the ISG's
recommendations, it is doing exactly that in practical terms, recommitting itself
to the hegemonic strategy in the Middle East it has been pursuing since it decided
in the aftermath of 9/11 to oust Saddam Hussein from power. As President Bush
and Vice President Dick Cheney have implied in private and public comments,
they will not be running for office in 2008 and are therefore under no domestic
political pressure to make dramatic changes in their foreign policy.
Mr. Bush knows that his historical legacy will be determined by what happens
in Iraq and the Middle East. Notwithstanding his upbeat rhetoric, he has probably
concluded that there won't be any U.S. victory in Iraq in the next two years.
His successor in the White House will then have to continue managing what will
probably become a permanent U.S. military commitment in the Persian Gulf. Mr.
Bush hopes that 20 or 30 years from now, historians will compare him to President
Harry Truman, who was not very popular at home when he led the U.S. into a costly
military intervention in Korea in 1950, but who is regarded today as the architect
of the successful U.S. Cold War strategy.
More likely, President Bush will feel in the next year or two like President
Lyndon Johnson, who faced very strong public and congressional opposition to
the growing U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in the mid-1960s.
Not only has he been confronted with a more skeptical, if not hostile press
corps, but starting early this year, Congress will be under the control of the
opposition party, whose leaders are planning to launch probes and hearings aimed
at assessing the administration's conduct in Iraq.
The combination of a critical media and scolding from Congress is bound to
make life even more miserable politically for the White House. It will certainly
make it even less likely that the White House and the Democratic Congress will
be able to reach agreements on a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues,
ranging from the Middle East and international trade to taxes and Social Security.
But the Democrats are constrained in terms of their congressional power to
force Mr. Bush, the commander in chief, to make major changes in his Iraq policy.
That is certainly the case when one considers that the Democrats themselves
are not united over a coherent policy in Iraq. But there is little doubt that
the political debate in Washington over Iraq and other issues will become very
nasty in 2007, especially as the politicians start preparing for the 2008 presidential
and congressional races.
At the same time, unexpected developments relating to the Middle East – Israeli
attacks on Iran's nuclear sites, a full-blown civil war in Iraq, a major terrorist
attack – could certainly change the balance of power in Washington by either
weakening or strengthening Mr. Bush's position. Whatever happens, one thing
is clear: The politicians in Washington and the journalists covering them will
be very busy in 2007. That's what happens when you live in interesting times.
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