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American foreign policy regarding the Middle East couldn't possibly be clearer right now. What's needed is to get beyond the rhetoric, partisanship and debates to see what the Bush administration is trying to do.
Its strategy is coherent, though not necessarily consistent, and it has both good and bad points. Mainly, though, it is a policy pragmatically adjusted to regional conditions and US needs.
Iraq has to be top priority.
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 the troops. And obviously, for political reasons, he wants to do it well before the next election in November 2008. Unless things go very badly wrong a new Iraqi government, elected in December 2005, will consolidate itself during 2006. This means a likely American pullout of many or most troops in 2007.
Victory will thus be defined as overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, keeping his supporters and radical Islamist insurgents from taking over the country, and turning over power to a stable, democratic government. 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, would take a number of years to play out.
The Bush administration doesn't 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 this Iraq-primacy factor.
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 US would not want to go to war over Iran even if it were not so vulnerable due to its exposure in Iraq; it 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 could 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-Europe 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, I would expect that no one is going to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons but given the time it needs to do so this will be 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 move along the road map plan. The idea is to keep the Europeans and Arabs happy so they cannot accuse the US of abandoning the problem.
On the internal level, however, the administration's analysis of the issue is, rightly, skeptical. While treating Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian leader, US officials know that he has neither the ability nor the will to do anything. Radical forces are gaining ground and there is no way the US can change this fact.
American leaders understand that there will not be a negotiated solution for years to come, but cannot admit it. Indeed, most European leaders also know this to be true. Why, then, should the US 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?
THE DEMOCRACY issue poses far less of a paradox for Washington than it may seem. The US 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 regime change but lacks the assets or readiness to take risks to make this happen. Its hostility will remain on the verbal level.
Barring a major crisis - a collapse in Iraq or the ousting of Abbas, for example - this is certainly a viable US policy, perhaps even the best one conditions allow. Whatever the power of the US, it has limits and must respond to local conditions. That's what experience, especially in the last decade, shows most clearly.
The writer's latest book, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, will be published by Wiley in September. His columns can now also be read online at http://gloria.idc.ac.il/columns/column.html
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