Sunday, December 03, 2006

Mideast allies near a state of panic

U.S. leaders' visits to the region reap only warnings and worry.

WASHINGTON — President Bush and his top advisors fanned out across the troubled Middle East over the last week to showcase their diplomatic initiatives to restore strained relationships with traditional allies and forge new ones with leaders in Iraq.

But instead of flaunting stronger ties and steadfast American influence, the president's journey found friends both old and new near a state of panic. Mideast leaders expressed soaring concern over upheavals across the region that the United States helped ignite through its invasion of Iraq and push for democracy — and fear that the Bush administration may make things worse.

President Bush's summit in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister proved an awkward encounter that deepened doubts about the relationship. Vice President Dick Cheney's stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, yielded a blunt warning from the kingdom's leaders. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's swing through the West Bank and Israel, intended to build Arab support by showing a new U.S. push for peace, found little to work with.

In all, visits designed to show the American team in charge ended instead in diplomatic embarrassment and disappointment, with U.S. leaders rebuked and lectured by Arab counterparts. The trips demonstrated that U.S. allies in the region were struggling to understand what to make of the difficult relationship, and to figure whether, with a new Democratic majority taking over Congress, Bush even had control over his nation's Mideast policy.

Arabs are "trying to figure out what the Americans are going to do, and trying develop their own plans," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), one of his party's point men on Iraq. "They're trying to figure out their Plan B."

The allies' predicament was described by Jordan's King Abdullah II last week, before Bush arrived in Amman, the capital. Abdullah, one of America's steadiest friends in the region, warned that the Mideast faced the threat of three simultaneous civil wars — in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. And he made clear that the burden of dealing with it rested largely with the United States.

"Something dramatic" needed to come out of Bush's meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to defuse the three-way threat, Abdullah said, because "I don't think we're in a position where we can come back and visit the problem in early 2007."

The only regional leader to voice unqualified support for the Bush administration has been Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has gone so far as to say that the Iraq invasion contributed to regional stability.

To Middle East observers, Bush can no longer speak for the United States as he did before because of the domestic pressure for a change of course in Iraq, said Nathan Brown, a specialist on Arab politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"He can talk all he wants about 'staying until the job is done,' but these leaders can read about the American political scene and see that he may not be able to deliver that," Brown said.

The Bush-Maliki meeting Thursday, closely watched around the world in anticipation of a possible change in U.S. strategy, produced no shift in declared aims. Rather, it resulted in diplomatic stumbles that seemed to belie the leaders' claims that their relationship was intact.

On the eve of the summit, a leaked memo written by Bush's national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, showed that U.S. officials questioned Maliki's abilities. But the memo also was a reminder of dwindling U.S. influence over Iraq. Some of the steps that Hadley said the Iraqis should take, such as providing public services to Sunni Arabs as well as Shiites, were moves that the Americans had demanded for many months, without success.

The leak of the memo cast a shadow over the summit, and Maliki abruptly canceled the first scheduled meeting, a conversation among Bush, Maliki and Abdullah. White House aides insisted that the cancellation was not a snub.

One Middle East diplomat said later in an interview that Maliki had canceled the meeting to put distance between him and Bush at a time when Iraq's Shiite lawmakers and Cabinet ministers with ties to militant cleric Muqtada Sadr had halted their participation in the government to protest the summit.

On Saturday, in his regular radio address, Bush said that his relationship with Maliki was, in fact, improving.

"With each meeting, I'm coming to know him better, and I'm becoming more impressed by his desire to make the difficult choices that will put his country on a better path," Bush said.

During the trip, Bush was unable to distance himself from the fierce debate about Iraq policy back home. The president felt the need to respond to news accounts saying that an advisory panel on Iraq would urge a gradual withdrawal of combat troops from the region. He insisted that suggestions for such a "graceful exit" were not realistic.

Despite this, Bush repeated in his radio address that he intended to look for a bipartisan solution to the war, and would listen to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which is scheduled to present its findings Wednesday.

He also said that his own internal review, coming from Pentagon and White House officials, among others, was near completion, suggesting that he may be discussing the options before him over the next several days.

"I want to hear all advice before I make any decisions about adjustments to our strategy in Iraq," Bush said.

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