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Iraq and the Mideast Conundrum

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: December 20, 2006

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It is less than two years since President Bush’s second inaugural address promised an American foreign policy dedicated to spreading democracy. As little as three months ago, he addressed from a UN podium “moderate reformers across the broader Middle East” with a hopeful message on democracy. Yet the Bush administration’s freedom agenda appeared to suffer a grievous blow in the past month amid damage control on Iraq, hastened by a resounding defeat of Republicans in midterm elections, and a bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s grim assessment of U.S. moves in Iraq.

The ISG declined to mention the goal of establishing democracy and emphasized regional diplomacy, including a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as a way of bringing stability to Iraq. Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, fresh from a conference of Persian Gulf leaders in Bahrain, said it was time for a broad policy adjustment following “a bungled U.S. occupation of Iraq conducted in the name of entrenching democracy in the region.” And with Lebanon’s fragile pro-democratic government teetering, Iran’s regional power ascendant, and the Palestinian crisis deepening, some analysts are saying the region is desperate for a strong U.S. hand not burdened by Iraq. Says Newsweek foreign editor Fareed Zakaria: “George W. Bush needs to understand that he now has to choose between Iraq and his broader Middle East project.”

But in the midst of all the advice on Mideast policy, outlined in this new Backgrounder, coming from inside and outside his administration, Bush has indicated he plans no abrupt shift. The goal remains a stable, “self-sustaining” democracy in Iraq, Bush says. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has quashed, for now, the idea of engaging Syria and Iran. Getting their help, she told the Washington Post, would involve too high a price for trying to secure Iraq. Others have questioned the notion of linking issues such as the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with success of other U.S. Mideast initiatives. “It wouldn’t end the Iraq war, it wouldn’t end the wider Sunni-Shiite confrontation, and it wouldn’t prevent Iran from seeking to export its ideology,” Israeli security adviser Gerald Steinberg tells Bernard Gwertzman.

But in Iraq itself, which the Pentagon says reached its highest level of violence this past autumn, Bush is expected to make some adjustments to policy based in part on recommendations from forthcoming plans from the Pentagon and the National Security Council's competing Iraq reports. Bush said on Wednesday he was considering an expansion of the U.S. Army and Marines but would not send more troops into Iraq without a "specific mission." The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes says Bush has reacted positively to a plan spelled out by Retired Gen. Jack Keane and military expert Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. The plan requires a substantial increase in ground forces and calls for changing the U.S. focus from training Iraqi soldiers to “securing the Iraqi population and containing the rising violence.” At the same time, experts such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell are deeply pessimistic about the ability of a U.S. force “surge” to resolve the situation in Iraq. Powell told “Face the Nation” the emphasis should be on transferring responsibility for security to Iraqi forces. All of which heightens the expectations for the role of incoming Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who took office this week and has already made the trek to the Iraqi front (WashPost).

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