With just over 18 months left in office, the administration of President George W. Bush appears once again to be moving in a more "realist" direction in its dealings with the rest of the world, including with the Middle East.
The most obvious sign came during last week’s regional meeting in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent a 30-minute tête-à-tête with her Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, reportedly focused on securing greater cooperation from Damascus on sealing its border with Iraq.
It was the first bilateral cabinet-level encounter between the United States and Syria since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in protest of which Washington recalled its ambassador from Damascus.
While Rice later insisted that her meeting differed from last month’s controversial visit (at least to Republicans) to Damascus by House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) because the discussion was both confined to Iraq and no photographers were present to record the occasion, most analysts here saw it as the latest—and potentially most significant—in a series of tentative steps toward implementing key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), which was co-chaired by James Baker.
"Gee, all of a sudden meeting with the Syrian government is not an act of high treason," wrote Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan, on his influential blog, noting that Rice had even sought Pelosi’s advice before setting out on her trip.
"I can only think that Condi’s meeting with Moallem is a sign that [Vice President] Dick Cheney‘s grip on power inside the White House is slipping badly, and that Condi has Bush’s ear on the need to engage."
Cheney, the leader of administration hawks, had publicly condemned Pelosi’s visit to Damascus as "bad behavior," while some of his neoconservative allies outside the administration even called for her prosecution under a 200-year-old law that makes it a crime for individual citizens to communicate with hostile foreign governments to influence their behavior.
Cheney, who is still smarting from Bush’s approval of a controversial nuclear deal with North Korea in February (following a personal appeal by Rice), suffered another setback last week when the White House announced the resignation of Deputy National Security Adviser J.D. Crouch II, a veteran hardliner who has overseen the day-to-day management of the National Security Council (NSC) during Bush’s second term.
Crouch, who served first as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and then as ambassador to Romania during Bush’s first term, chaired the interagency deliberations that led to the adoption of Bush’s Iraq "surge" strategy to send some 30,000 more troops to Baghdad.
Crouch first worked for the vice president when Cheney headed the Pentagon under former President George H.W. Bush. In that capacity, Crouch, long a proponent of developing new nuclear weapons and missile defense systems, helped prepare the 1992 draft Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) overseen by then-Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and the vice president’s future chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, both of whom played key roles in Bush’s first term.
The DPG draft, which was leaked to the New York Times and subsequently repudiated by the elder Bush administration, called for Washington to pursue military dominance in and around Eurasia, to carry out preemptive attacks against potential threats, and to rely on ad hoc alliances rather than multilateral mechanisms, such as the UN or NATO, to promote U.S. interests. These ideas were incorporated 10 years later in the younger Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy.
The announcement of Crouch’s departure was particularly remarkable given the widely reported—and as yet unsuccessful—search by his boss, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, for a so-called "war czar." This post is intended for someone with sufficient stature and clout to ensure that White House directives on the conduct of the U.S. "war on terror," especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, are implemented so that Hadley himself, who colleagues say is already over-worked, can address other problems. His deputy’s imminent departure can only add to his burdens.
Indeed, Hadley’s failure to recruit a candidate—at least four retired top military generals have reportedly rejected his entreaties—has added to the growing impression that the White House policymakers are increasingly in disarray, an impression compounded by the public observation by one of the generals, Gen. Jack Sheehan, that "they don’t know where the hell they’re going."
That situation is particularly harmful for the hawks, who have watched their numbers within the administration decline steadily since the beginning of the second term.
They began losing their all-important Pentagon base with the departures in early 2005 of Wolfowitz and the neoconservative undersecretary for policy, Douglas Feith. The replacement last November of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, a realist and Baker confidant, eliminated yet another critical Cheney ally, while Rumsfeld’s powerful undersecretary for intelligence, Stephen Cambone, and the assistant secretary for international security affairs, Peter Rodman, have also taken their leave.
Libby, Cheney’s savvy former chief of staff, resigned after his indictment in October 2006 for lying to federal investigators (for which he was tried and found guilty earlier this year), and most veteran Cheney watchers believe that the vice president’s influence over other agencies has declined as a result.
At the State Department, meanwhile, the departures this year of former UN Amb. John Bolton and former undersecretary for arms control and international security Robert Joseph have removed key members of the hawks’ network. This leaves Cheney’s office and the National Security Council (NSC) as the last redoubt of hawks regarding Middle East policy. (Neoconservative Elliott Abrams, who reportedly encouraged Israel to attack Syria during last summer’s war with Hezbollah, works at the NSC.)
It is in that context that the State Department has been moving—if timidly, according to some analysts—to assert its more "realist" views on crisis areas, first North Korea, and increasingly in the Middle East, pursuant to the recommendations of the ISG (of which Gates was a member until his nomination to take over the Pentagon).
Those moves have been encouraged as well by the aggressiveness of the new Democratic majorities in Congress since last November’s elections and the growing uneasiness of Republican lawmakers, particularly on Iraq, as the 2008 elections approach.
While Republicans have remained remarkably disciplined during the most recent legislative battle over the imposition of a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, most analysts here appear to agree that, absent measurable progress on the ground in stabilizing Iraq, they will begin deserting Bush in droves by September.
The regional environment in the Middle East is also forcing the administration to move in a more realist direction, as Saudi Arabia has increasingly made clear its distaste for the hawks’ strategy of tensions in the region, particularly their hopes of further stoking friction in Lebanon, and provoking a new round of civil conflict between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine.
Indeed, Cheney is expected to get an earful when he travels to the region to meet with, among others, Saudi King Abdullah, who shocked the administration last month when he denounced the U.S. military presence in Iraq as an "illegitimate foreign occupation."
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributing writer to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org).