Bush: Staying the course in Iraq

Despite a growing and virtually universal consensus that the US must engage Syria and Iran if it hopes to stabilise Iraq, United States President George W Bush appears determined to ignore Baghdad’s two key neighbours as long as possible.

That is increasingly the assessment of analysts in America who had been hopeful that both the Democratic sweep of the mid-term Congressional elections earlier this month, as well as Bush’s decision to replace Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld with former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Robert Gates, would incline the president toward a more accommodating stance. In particular, it had been thought that those two developments would make the anticipated recommendation by the Congressionally-mandated, bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker politically irresistible. Its long-awaited report will be released next Wednesday.

But recent statements by Bush and other senior administration officials, as well as the departure of a key “realist” adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have fuelled growing speculation that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney hope they can still prevail in Iraq without having to sit down with the two “evil-doers”.

Indeed, that appeared to be the message Bush himself wished to convey on Tuesday at a NATO summit in Riga where he recommitted the US to support for Iraq’s “young democracy” and vowed not to withdraw US troops “until the mission is complete”. “He has no intention to change his policy in Iraq,” Pat Lang, a former top Middle East analyst at the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), concluded after reviewing Bush’s remarks.

In the same appearance, Bush also appeared to rule out talks with Tehran and Damascus under present circumstances. “Iran knows how to get to the table with us. That is to verifiably suspend their enrichment programmes,” he said, stressing, however, that he had no objection to direct talks between the Iraqi leaders, such as those carried out over the weekend in Tehran by President Jalal Talibani, and their counterparts in Iran and Syria.

The New York Times described Bush’s comments as “laying the foundation to push back against” the ISG’s anticipated recommendations, an assessment that echoes recent suggestions by senior officials that the ISG is just one of a number of ongoing reviews of the situation in Iraq.

Depicting any engagement with Iran or Syria as “appeasement” and “capitulation”, many critics have warned that such a move would only encourage Islamist radicals and Israel’s foes in the region and further diminish whatever influence the US retains there. Baker, who has been seen as the architect of what has been described as a “realist” makeover of the administration’s foreign policy apparatus, has naturally rejected these attacks.

“In my view, it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies,” he said last month. But they may yet be hitting home with Bush, who apparently is not yet ready to accept the increasingly widely-held view that Washington’s position in Iraq and the region as a whole has become so weak that, without some help from Damascus and Tehran, it will be unable to stop a full-blown civil war that could well spread beyond Iraq’s borders. — IPS