With U.S. forces in Iraq having recently reached “surge” levels, President Bush has intensified a diplomatic offensive, dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to visit U.S. allies (LAT) in the region. The trip has several aims: ensuring better cooperation on Iraq, advancing Bush’s calls for Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, and expressing commitment to regional security. Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institution, tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman the central message of the visit is: “The United States is going to remain the core guarantor of security and stability in the Gulf.”
The two Bush cabinet members arrived bearing incentives (RFE/RL), including an estimated $63 billion worth of arms deals for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. In an official statement, Rice explained the arms packages, which still require congressional approval, should help counter the “negative influences of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.” A Times of London editorial says containing Iran is a shared interest of the United States and its allies in the Gulf region. National security analyst William M. Arkin suggests in his Washington Post blog that Rice and Gates could be paving the way for a new U.S. military alliance in the Middle East that would ensure a U.S. military presence even after withdrawal from Iraq.
As for Iraq, the United States hopes to convince neighboring Sunni allies to increase ties with Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Michael E. O’Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack, who have criticized Bush administration policy in Iraq in the past, write in a New York Times op-ed that the United States is finally making progress militarily. But experts warn military gains will prove short-lived unless bolstered by political progress, and here reports are less rosy. In the latest setback, six members of the Iraqi government’s Sunni bloc have quit following a protracted dispute (al-Jazeera) with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. On the plus side, Riyadh announced it will explore the possibility of opening an embassy in Baghdad (AP), a move long requested by the United States. At the same time, however, Saudi Arabia rebuffed pressure (NYT) from the United States to block Saudi militants from crossing into Iraq. In fact, TIME suggests Washington and Riyadh remain far apart and the Saudis will be unlikely to strike any grand bargains with Bush, whom they view as a lame duck.
But on another crucial U.S. initiative in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia expressed willingness to attend a regional peace conference (NYT) on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, provided the meeting address the “final status” issues that have stymied previous diplomatic efforts. The Saudis helped draft an Arab-League-backed peace proposal, which was recently presented to Israel (BBC) by the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers. According to Haaretz, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is keen to meet with Arab leaders. Before leaving the region, Rice sat down with Israeli leaders and inked an $80 million deal (al-Jazeera) with Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to help reform Palestinian security forces.