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POLITICS-US: No Traction in the Middle East

Analysis by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Aug 5 2008 (IPS) - More than five years after invading Iraq as a first step towards "transforming" the Middle East, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush seems to have lost its footing – let alone its unquestioned domination – throughout the region.

The talk of "democratising" the region has almost entirely disappeared from the administration’s rhetoric. Washington has had to sacrifice whatever pressure it had been willing to exert on "friendly authoritarians" to bolster their rule against popular sentiment, which has become considerably more hostile toward the U.S. than before the invasion.

Similarly, its plan after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war to forge a de facto coalition between the Jewish state and those same "moderate" authoritarians against the threat posed by Iran, Syria and their allies in the Levant has also failed.

Not only has the administration repeatedly refused to pay the Arabs’ price for such an arrangement – putting serious pressure on Israel to reach a peace accord with a unified Palestinian government based largely on a return to the 1967 borders – but the assumption that the Arab Gulf states, in particular, would welcome and support an eventual military confrontation between Washington and Tehran has also proved illusory.

The one area in which Washington has made some progress has been in Iraq where sectarian violence has fallen sharply over the past 18 months, in good part as a result of more-successful counter-insurgency tactics pursued by General David Petraeus during the "Surge" of some 30,000 additional troops.

But the Surge’s strategic goal – national reconciliation between the key sectarian and ethnic groups in Iraq – remains elusive, as evidenced by the latest impasse between Arabs and Kurds over Kirkuk and the certainty that long-promised regional elections will be delayed until next year.

Even Petraeus continues to warn that the security gains made since the Surge got underway in February 2007 remain fragile and could be reversed in the absence of significant political progress.

Washington’s continuing pre-occupation with Iraq – as well as its growing concern about Afghanistan and Pakistan – has effectively undermined its larger transformational ambitions in the Arab world, in particular, leaving local powers to work out their own arrangements with each other, even in ways that make the administration uneasy or even angry.

"The hard-line, confrontational policy the United States has embraced under the Bush administration has inadvertently demonstrated the limits of U.S. power," according to a recent paper published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The rejection of diplomacy has reduced the United States to a condition of self-inflicted powerlessness regarding many problems."

"The vacuum is being filled in part by U.S. adversaries – Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizbollah – and in part by friendly Arab regimes, which seek to find a way forward in situations where U.S. policy has contributed to stalemate," according to the report, entitled ‘The New Arab Diplomacy: Not With the U.S. and Not Against the U.S.’, by Carnegie fellows Marina Ottaway and Mohammed Herzallah.

This is particularly notable with respect to the gradual détente between Iran – Washington’s main regional nemesis since the Iraq war – and Saudi Arabia, traditionally Washington’s most important Gulf ally.

That process, which has included two visits to Saudi Arabia by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as his unprecedented participation at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, is credited in major part to Saudi King Abdullah, who has made little secret of his aim – contrary to that of the administration’s hawks – to reduce Sunni-Shia tensions, that came to the fore after the Israel-Hezbollah war.

Abdullah, who shocked the U.S. when he negotiated the ill-fated unity government between Hamas and Fatah in early 2007, also worked with Iran to calm sectarian tensions in Lebanon that year despite his steadfast backing for Washington’s efforts to isolate Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.

Similarly, Qatar, which hosts a huge U.S. air base, has played a leading role in reducing tensions in the region, most notably by negotiating a political settlement to the long-running stand-off in Lebanon in May that resulted in the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

While U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed the accord during a visit to Beirut in June, most analysts here and in the region depicted the result as a serious blow to Washington’s regional position.

"Many essentially friendly countries are openly willing to pursue policies the United States disapproves of, presenting Washington with a fait accompli and the choice of either openly criticising the action of its so-called allies or grudgingly tolerating it," according to the Carnegie report. "[T]he United States has little leverage over the policies of even friendly countries."

While the new report focuses primarily on Arab diplomacy, it does mention that even Washington’s closest ally in the region, Israel, has declared at least partial independence from the Bush administration, notably by using third parties in the region to engage adversaries whom Washington persists in trying to isolate.

Thus, through Egypt, it has negotiated what appears to be an increasingly effective cease-fire with Hamas and may soon conclude a prisoner exchange with the Islamist group, just as it did – again in the face of Washington’s clear disapproval – with Hezbollah last month.

The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has also been pursuing increasingly intensive, Turkish-mediated negotiations with Syria that have, according to the Israeli press, acquired the backing of the Jewish state’s entire security establishment.

Damascus has been the target of unceasing efforts by the White House, in particular, to isolate and punish neo-conservative hawk Elliott Abrams who assumed the top Middle East post in the National Security Council on the eve of the Iraq invasion. Indeed, it was only two years ago, during the opening days of the Israel-Hezbollah war, that Abrams suggested that Israel carry the fight into Syrian territory.

Now, according to Israeli press reports, the two countries are within reach of a final peace accord, which could come as early as the next round of proximity talks in September.

Damascus, however, is insisting that Washington give its explicit blessing to the agreement, a blessing that, given Abrams’ enduring influence – despite the wishes of the State Department and the Pentagon – most analysts believe will likely await the arrival of a new administration next year.

While such "negative power" remains a very real factor as Bush’s tenure winds down, it appears increasingly detached both from any practicable strategic vision and from the wishes and desires of key U.S. allies in the region.

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