Filling Washington's Middle East policy gap with fudge

05 January 2007
The only good thing about what looked like the lynching of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein is that it happened on 30 December. This meant it was a bad end to 2006 rather than a depressing start to 2007.

But it ensured that Iraq remained in everyone's minds during the celebrations to mark the passing of, on balance, a good year for the Middle East. Lebanon was vandalised in Israel's Hezbollah war, violence worsened in Iraq and the Darfur humanitarian crisis deepened. But for most of the region's people, 2006 was a year of rising incomes as economic growth hit its highest level for more than a quarter of a century.

OPEC's December decision for more output cuts from 1 February will ensure there will be no oil price meltdown in the next 12 months. It means a further loss of market share to non-OPEC producers in 2007, but this will be recovered. The consensus is that oil prices will remain at or above $50 a barrel. Middle East petroleum exporters should enjoy another year of solid real growth.

The larger political picture looks murky. You can paint a range of alarming scenarios, but the biggest Middle East uncertainty is what President Bush will do in the political conditions created by the Republican's mid-term defeat in November.

The White House this January is being pulled in three directions. The most obvious pressure will come from Congress, where those wanting a new course in Iraq may be in the majority. President Bush can use his authority as commander in chief of the US armed forces to press ahead regardless, but a price will be paid if he ignores the main recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group which reported in December.

The second pressure comes from within the administration, where stay-the-course advocates are still numerous. They include Vice-President Dick Cheney, who remains Bush's most influential adviser. Although the dismissal of former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggests that their grip on US policy has been broken, it is inconceivable that the hawks' views will be ignored.

The third pressure is coming from America's Middle East allies who were never convinced the 2003 Iraq invasion made sense. Curiously, they may now be the most convinced proponents of US troops staying in force in Iraq long-term. Their concern is that the Iraq civil war will lead to further ethnic cleansing and spill over into the wider region, with Iran benefiting from both developments.

How Bush will tackle the triple challenge should become clearer at the end of January in his annual State of the Union address. Suggestions that he has already decided to send more troops are pure speculation until Congress approves the additional $100,000 million the US Defence Department says it needs to finance the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So it seems the central element of US Middle East policy will be in the air for at least one more month. This is bad news for America's regional partners, but no policy is better than a bad one, as events in Iraq in the past four years have incontrovertibly proven.

The new-look Iraq policy, when it comes, will have to satisfy the three constituencies Bush needs to please. Congress could be persuaded to approve more troops and money, which the hardliners want, provided the White House agrees greater consultation and periodic reviews of US actions in Iraq. This formula would be welcomed by America's regional partners if it is accompanied by tangible evidence that the US will work harder to break the Arab-Israel impasse.

Those looking for radical new departures are likely to be disappointed. This administration is not yet ready to begin a full dialogue with Syria, though understandings in selected areas, including infiltration across the border into Iraq, could be reached. Talking to Iran, even if Tehran was genuinely interested in listening, is simply not on the agenda. Whatever its merits, that would be attacked by Bush's critics as evidence of intolerable weakness.

The White House will be accused of cooking up a fudge wholly pleasing to no-one. But the policy envisaged above should be enough to keep Iraq from falling apart as it would without American involvement. It will not, however, end the violence or solve the deepening problem the Iraq war is creating for US politicians of both parties. That chicken will come home to roost in due course. And it is almost certain that we will all be having a very similar debate this time next year.

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