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Middle East hasn't turned out the way Bush, Rice predicted

LONDON—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's Air Force jet, a specially equipped Boeing 757, passed west of Baghdad as she left the Middle East last week, giving those on the cabin's right-hand side a crystal-clear view of the tortured Iraqi city below.

The Green Zone, home to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government, the U.S. Embassy compound and whatever hope remains for restoring peace, was visible. But Rice wasn't stopping.

She told reporters Thursday in London, the last stop of her week-long trip, that she had avoided Baghdad to give Maliki and his aides "some time to get their plans in order" to implement a new U.S.-Iraqi approach to stabilize the country. This wasn't the moment to put more pressure on Maliki, she indicated. Iraqi officials said Maliki wasn't offended by her failure to touch down in Baghdad.

But it's also clear that with Iraq in chaos and the Persian Gulf worried about a possible confrontation with Iran, Rice and President Bush are trying to limit the damage. Their focus is shifting from Iraq to the rest of the region for the first time since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

The Middle East, critical to U.S. energy security and the wellspring of most anti-Western terrorism, hasn't turned out the way advocates of the Iraq invasion had hoped or the way Bush and Rice had predicted.

Iraq was supposed to be a model for democracy in the Arab world. Instead, Iraq's breakdown has spawned heightened sectarian tensions across the region. The chief beneficiary has been Iran, whose influence is growing in the Middle East.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems no closer to resolution. Some advocates of the Iraq war predicted that resolving the conflict would be easier once Saddam Hussein was ousted, but the road to Jerusalem appears not to have run through Baghdad.

"The direct result of our Iraq policy has been the strengthening of Iran in the region, and now the administration has been dealing with the consequences of that," said F. Gregory Gause, director of the University of Vermont's Middle East studies program.

"I don't think this means the administration has given up hope on Iraq," Gause added. "They're looking at the region now in much broader strategic terms than they were when they were thinking that Iraq was going to be a democracy that was just going to ripple through" the Middle East.

Rice's trip—which took her to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Germany and Britain—had three goals: Push Israeli-Palestinian peace, contain Iran and help implement the new Iraq plan.

Progress appeared modest on all three.

The chief U.S. diplomat managed to set up talks next month between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discuss, informally, a future Palestinian state.

But those are essentially talks about talks between two leaders who are so politically weak that they have little room to maneuver.

Even though she and Bush have only 24 months left in office, Rice held back from making an all-out commitment to try to end the decades-old conflict.

"It takes not just deal-making and shuttle diplomacy to make it work," she said Thursday. "We've been laying groundwork. We'll see if we've laid enough groundwork to actually produce a breakthrough."

Rice made slightly more headway on Iran, thanks to rising concern in the Arab world over Tehran's reach and intentions.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, along with Egypt and Jordan, issued a statement calling for respect for "the principle of noninterference" in other countries' affairs. Iran wasn't mentioned, but a U.S. official, who followed diplomatic protocol and spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said it was the target of the statement. (The council comprises Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.)

At each of her stops, Rice explained Bush's new plan for Iraq, which calls for an additional 21,500 U.S. troops and $1.2 billion in economic aid in return for steps by Maliki to get control of militias and extend his government's writ.

She found tepid support for the plan among Iraq's neighbors, with no one confident that it would work.

"Let's not accuse anybody of being optimistic, all right?" she said at one point, only partly in jest.

The mood in the palaces of the Persian Gulf seemed to be angst—growing fear that Iraq's Sunni-on-Shiite violence will envelope its Arab neighbors, most of them Sunni Muslim-dominated nations with Shiite minorities.

Conspicuously farther down Rice's agenda, at least publicly, was the push for Middle East democracy that dominated some of her past visits to the region.

The Arab states that Washington hopes will help counter Iran and handle Iraq are all autocracies of various stripes.

Moreover, said Gause, rising sectarian tensions in the Arab world make it harder, and more dangerous, for leaders to open up their political systems.

Rice told reporters that she'll continue to push for democratic changes. But she seemed more focused on protecting what she described as fragile successes in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

"There are some young democratic states that have now been established and are at risk," she said.

And Rice's decision to fly over Baghdad rather than stop there to put more pressure on Maliki could be seen as a tacit acknowledgement that much about the Middle East's future is out of U.S. hands.


(McClatchy correspondent Leila Fadel in Baghdad contributed to this report.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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