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American foreign policy toward the Middle East could not possibly be clearer right now. What is needed is to get beyond the rhetoric, partisanship and debates, to see what the Bush administration is trying to do.
It is a coherent, though not necessarily, consistent strategy with both good and bad points. Mainly, though, the policy is one that is pragmatically adjusted to regional conditions and US needs.
Iraq has to be at the top of the priority list. While President George Bush speaks of "victory" - a dangerous tactic - he is redefining the meaning of that word.
No doubt, the administration is looking for the earliest opportunity to withdraw troops. Obviously, for political reasons, he wants to do so well prior to the next election in November 2008. Unless things go very badly, a new Iraqi government, elected in December 2005, will consolidate itself during 2006. This means a likely US pullout of many or most troops in 2007.
Victory will thus be defined as overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, keeping his supporters or radical Islamist insurgents from taking over the country, and turning over power to a stable, democratic government in Iraq. Such a goal is achievable.
The shortcomings are likely to be a continued insurgency in Iraq, a possible civil war in which a Shi'ite-led government crushes the terrorists, and limitations on democratic practices under the new regime (partly understandable given the terrorist attacks it faces). The most dangerous outcome would be a drift toward Islamism by the leadership, but that might well be avoided and in any case will take a number of years to play out.
The Bush administration does not want anything to get in the way of a success in Iraq. At the same time, the deployment in Iraq stretches US resources in the region in every respect: Relations with Arab and European states, militarily, financially, and in terms of domestic political support. Every other issue, then, is subject to the outcome in Iraq.
TAKE, FOR example, the Iranian nuclear issue. The United States would not like Iran to get nuclear weapons. Given the context of events, however, there is not much it can do about this problem.
Already, US sanctions and verbal criticism of Iran have been quite high. The United States would not want to go to war over Iran even if it were not so vulnerable due to its exposure in Iraq, and certainly will not do so given the fact that it is already fighting another war next door.
Covert operations to destroy Iranian nuclear capacity sound good but can go wrong or be exposed. The administration clearly does not have the domestic political support for a failed military operation in Iran, a war with Teheran, or a scandal over some secret sabotage effort.
Bush, then, is giving the Europeans a chance to take the lead. This simultaneously shores up US-European relations and gives his critics there a chance to fail, showing that American methods are not so stupid compared to European peaceful diplomacy in dealing with crises. In short, no one is going to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but given the time the Iranians need, this is a problem for Bush's successor.
Regarding Israel-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli issues, the administration's policy is separated between its public posture and its real analysis. On the public level, it wants to show that it is doing everything possible to support Palestinian moderates and advance the road map plan.
The idea is to keep the Europeans and Arabs happy so they cannot accuse the United States of abandoning the problem.
On the internal level, however, its analysis of the issue is rightly skeptical. While treating Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian leader, administration officials know that he has neither the ability nor the will to do anything.
Radical forces are gaining ground and there is no way that the United States can change this fact. US leaders understand that there will not be a negotiated solution for years to come but will not admit it.
Indeed, most European leaders also know this to be true. Why, then, should the United States invest its prestige or limited diplomatic capital in a failed effort other than to keep alive the largely cost-free pretense that it has not failed?
As for the democracy issue, this poses far less of a paradox for Washington than it may seem. The United States can maintain a declaratory policy of supporting reform, urging free elections and helping Arab liberals. It is increasingly aware that change will take a long time and that voters might support radical Islamists. Thus, US policy is seeking more modest goals, not pushing very hard or everywhere on this agenda. Critics may point to inconsistencies but in practice this is a very easy strategy to pursue.
Finally, on Syria, the administration would like to see a regime change but lacks the assets or readiness to take risks to make this happen. This hostility will remain on the verbal level.
Barring a major crisis, such as a collapse in Iraq or the ousting of Abbas, this is certainly a viable US policy, perhaps even the best one that conditions allow. Whatever the power of the United States, it has limits and must respond to local conditions. That is what experience, especially in the last decade, shows most clearly.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center.
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