Monday, July 30, 2007

Rice and Gates are off to the Middle East on a Salvage Operation

On Monday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will leave on a highly unusual joint mission to the Middle East. They leave with three objectives, and low expectations.

They need to persuade Iraq’s neighboring states to do more to help stabilize the country, they need to counter the growing influence of Iran in the region, and they hope to get some significant motion going on the development of a peace plan between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Lofty goals, but not likely to be very successful. The United States has little or no credibility in the region. The U.S. has caused massive death and instability in Iraq, and strengthened al Qaeda; they have also failed to calm the strife in Lebanon, bolster the Palestinian Authority, or bring pressure to bear on Syria.

Quite the contrary – U.S. policies have fanned the flames of Sunni extremism, and strengthened Iran. Those are the two things that cause the greatest consternation among the moderate Arab countries, because those are the two entities that threaten their grip on power.

Also not playing well to the locals is U.S. support for the ill-fated Israeli war against Hezbollah last summer. Continued attempts to undermine the popularly-elected Hamas in the Gaza strip. "The strategy is based on the assumption that you could isolate, weaken ... Hamas," while strengthening Abbas and his Fatah faction, said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland. "It cannot succeed. ... Everybody agrees that you can't simply isolate Hamas." Couple that failed strategy with United States’ continued support for Mubarak in Egypt, it pretty much puts the lie to claims that the United States “fosters Muslim democracy.”

The leaders of friendly states have lost faith in the Bush administration and do not believe he will deliver on his promises. Therefore, they are reluctant to risk anything for Bush. “Our credibility is in tatters. They are not going to commit because they don’t trust us. That doesn’t mean they are not concerned about Iran. It just means they just don’t know what we are going to do,” said one senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters.

One needn’t read Runes to see other signs of discord in the administration.

On the eve of the trip, unnamed U.S. officials told The New York Times that Washington believes Saudi Arabia has been unhelpful in Iraq by not supporting Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government. The administration publicly disavowed the report, but said that Saudi Arabia could do more to help. The leaked complaint seems unlikely to make life easier for Rice and Gates when they arrive in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, early in the trip.

Pentagon and State Department officials said the trip is intended to reassure Arab leaders that the U.S. will uphold its security commitments in the region, and meanwhile, Arab diplomats in Washington resolutely maintain that they need more than reassurances. They have heard a lot of proposals and reassurances, but they have not seen a clear plan for peace or security in the region. The U.S. promises a more active role, but consistently fails to deliver. Arab diplomats in Washington voiced skepticism – anonymously – that the trip would be fruitful.

More than what Rice and Gates say on the trip, “[P]eople will be monitoring the debate in Washington. Everybody is watching that very closely and then will draw their own conclusions.” said one anonymous diplomat.

“There is no clarity,” another diplomat said on condition of anonymity, because he didn't want to disagree publicly with the administration. “The trip in and of itself is not important. What’s important is that the administration commit to dealing with the substantive issues.”

Rice and Gates have their work cut out for them. With 18 months left in office, it will be difficult to reshape the way the region sees the United States, said William Quandt, a professor of international relations at the University of Virginia, who as an aide to President Jimmy Carter helped craft the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt.

“I don’t think they have a real strategy that has much chance of working,” Quandt said. Gates, who joined the administration in December, “may be able to calm things down a little. But that won’t change the course.”

The two Secretaries will attend meetings together in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, then they will part company. Gates will visit “other gulf states” and Rice will head for Israel and the Palestinain territories to meet with Mahmood Abbas and Israeli leaders. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other U.S. allies in the region want the United States to reach out to the popularly-elected Hamas, which now controls Gaza, but Rice has steadfastly maintained that there will be no dealing with the Hamas, which is the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization.

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