WASHINGTON (IPS) — To the extent the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has a coherent Middle East policy, it took some serious hits this past week.
No, not the democracy-promotion strategy, although that didn’t fare very well either given what even the State Department conceded was the obvious rigging of the constitutional-reform referendum that Amnesty International called the “greatest erosion of human rights” in Egypt in the past 25 years.
No, that strategy, to the degree it was ever seriously pursued, was replaced about six months or so ago by a new approach designed to rally the region’s Sunni “moderate” authoritarian governments — namely, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates — and forge them into a U.S.-led alliance, possibly even including Israel, against the region’s “radicals” — Iran, Syria, Lebanon’s Hizbullah and Palestinian Hamas.
That new strategy was supplemented by an effort, officially launched in early February, to halt Iraq’s rapid descent into full-scale sectarian civil war by sending some 35,000 additional troops to Baghdad and al-Anbar province. When completed by this summer, the so-called “surge” is supposed to bring total U.S. forces to as many as 175,000, or about the same number that invaded Iraq four years ago.
But events of this past week raised serious questions about the prospects for success on both fronts.
A resurgence of horrific sectarian violence — coupled with the release of an exceptionally gloomy report by a highly influential and heretofore optimistic retired general — cast new doubts on the on-the-ground viability of Bush’s “surge.”
At the same time, the Senate’s approval of a must-pass defense appropriations bill requiring the president to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by late summer and complete their withdrawal within the next year raised new questions the strategy’s political viability here at home.
While the latter received more media attention, in part because it sets up a major confrontation next month between the White House and the new Democratic majority in Congress, the former could well prove more decisive in persuading public opinion here that the troops should come home.
Citing the disappearance of Shi’a militias and a substantial drop in the number of killings in Baghdad over the past month, administration officials, including Bush, have been tentatively claiming the surge’s success, and, indeed, polling suggested that the general public had become somewhat more optimistic about Iraq.
But a wave of car bombings, apparently by Sunni militants, in areas in and around the capital and further north in Tal Afar, not only boosted death tolls to pre-surge levels, but also threatened to bring Shi’a militias back into the streets, according to the right-wing “Washington Times.”
That the worst violence took place in Tal Afar, where police and Shi’a gunmen Wednesday executed dozens of Sunnis in retaliation for the bombings, was particularly devastating to the administration’s case, because a counter-insurgency campaign carried out there early last year has been repeatedly cited as the model on which the surge strategy is based.
If the week’s violence suggested that the Sunni insurgency was adapting to the surge by simply attacking to comparably deadly effect elsewhere, the latest report by ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a vocal supporter of the strategy who had previously been upbeat about the military situation, was likely to bolster Democratic arguments for reducing, rather than escalating, U.S. combat forces.
McCaffrey, who just returned from a visit to both Afghanistan and Iraq, where he met with top U.S. diplomats and military and intelligence officials, wrote that the Iraqi population “is in despair” and expressed consternation at the resilience of both the insurgents and the militias.
“Although we have arrested 120,000 insurgents (hold 27,000) and killed some huge number of enemy combatants (perhaps 20,000 plus) — the armed insurgents, militias and al Qaeda in Iraq without fail apparently re-generate both leadership cadres and foot soldiers. Their sophistication, numbers, and lethality go up — not down — as they incur these staggering battle losses,” he wrote, adding that they are “in some ways more capable of independent operations” than the Iraqi army. He also warned that the U.S. military was “in a position of strategic peril” as a result of its Iraq intervention.
As new questions emerged about the effectiveness or futility of the surge, however, Washington’s larger regional strategy also appeared to suffer potentially significant setbacks on the diplomatic front.
At the Arab League summit in Riyadh, Saudi King Abdullah, on whom the administration in recent months has come increasingly to rely for rallying the region’s “moderates” against the Iran-led “Quartet of Evil,” shocked official Washington when, in his opening remarks, he called the U.S. military presence in Iraq an “illegitimate foreign occupation.”
Coupled with a “Washington Post” report that Abdullah had also turned down a White House dinner invitation for next month and his embrace at the summit of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the king’s remarks tended to confirm what many independent regional specialists have been saying for some time: that Saudi Arabia and the other “moderates” were more interested in restoring stability to the region, even if that means reaching out to key members of the Iranian-led “Quartet of Evil,” than in playing a pawn in Bush’s latest grand strategy against Tehran.
“King Abdullah has come to the conclusion that only Arab unity can restore the regional balance of power (that has been) so skewed in Iran’s favor by the destruction of Saddam’s Arabist regime,” wrote Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at University of Oklahoma, on his blog, Syriacomment.com. “To do this, Saudi Arabia must reach an accommodation with Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas; it cannot destroy them, as the U.S. recommends.”
“The Saudis never completely signed on to the American plan to isolate Iran,” according to Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert at the University of Vermont. “They are worried about Iran and want to contain or roll back Iranian influence,” he told IPS. “But they are not on board for a full confrontational policy with Iran.”
Abdullah — as well as his fellow monarch, Abdullah II of Jordan (who cancelled his scheduled visit to Washington next month) — is also reportedly increasingly frustrated with Bush’s failure to put serious pressure on Israel to respond positively both to the new Palestinian unity government, which the king himself successfully midwifed, and to the five-year-old Arab League proposal, re-iterated this week at the Summit, to recognize the Jewish state if it returns to its 1967 borders and acknowledges the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Without swift and tangible progress on those fronts, according to many analysts here, notably including State Department experts who share Abdullah’s frustration with the White House, more radical elements in the region — both Sunni and Shi’a — will only become stronger as U.S.-allied “moderate” leaders risk even greater alienation from their increasingly well-informed and inter-connected publics.
That the unsustainability of Bush’s larger regional strategy was perhaps penetrating even the White House this past week was suggested by its uncharacteristically restrained reaction here to the continued detention by Iranian forces of the 15 British sailors seized in disputed waters near the entry to the Shatt-al-Arab in the Gulf eight days ago.
Unlike past outrages quickly seized on by Bush to remind “evil-doers” that “all options are on the table,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair was left to fulminate against Tehran pretty much on his own.