Like most American second-term presidencies, George W. Bush’s administration has come to realize its best-laid policy plans for the world will not come to be before it is time for him to go. His earlier momentum has therefore slowed. Like most presidents before him, unless overtaken by the unexpected, he has now switched from new ventures to trumpeting his achievements and building up the foreign affairs portfolio he would like to hand over to the next occupant of the Oval Office.
Watching the sand run down the hour glass has instilled in the Bush administration a sense of what may be called cautious pessimism – or resignation. The US leader is coming to terms with a portfolio that contains some of his most cherished projects in an unfinished and unresolved state. Embattled Iraq will remain a work in progress, as will the global fight to the death against al Qaeda. North Korea and Iran are rushing unstopped towards nuclear armament. The Palestinians do not seem to get any nearer to statehood or a peace treaty with the Israelis.
Vice president Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley are therefore busy preserving their gains to date and seeking interim solutions for intractable issues. Bush and his government would like to quit in November 2008 on a high note, with enough popular approval and recognition to keep his successor following the same track until its objectives are attained.
Bush’s easy post- 9/11 affinity with Russian president Vladimir Putin has soured to the point that the tones of White House-Kremlin communications are often acerbic enough to recall the bad old Cold War era. This rift has driven the US president and secretary of state into working overtime to rebuild a fresh relationship with Europe and repair the huge wounds wrought by their falling-out over the Iraq war.
Most of this effort has gone to waste.
His European Partners Are Ailing
Across the Atlantic, Bush’s partners-in-vision are in a bad way. British prime minister Tony Blair took a severe personal beating in the May general election and is not expected to last out full five-year term. He is one of the last of a dwindling group of British politicians in favor of London’s close strategic collaboration with the Bush administration.
German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder‘s hold on government is fading. He too faces a general election before the end of the year after disastrous setbacks. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is suffering from waning electoral and political fortunes.
Unpopular governments groping for handholds are digging a hole for the European Union as a world power.
Paradoxically, French president Jacques Chirac is the only leader, aside from Blair, willing to stand up and be counted with the US president on such central issues as the Iranian nuclear program and the retrieval of Lebanon from Damascus’s ken after the withdrawal of Syrian troops.
But this welcome collaboration does not extend to Iraq, where America must find solutions for its mounting difficulties more or less unaided.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s political analysts estimate that while the three years left to the Bush White House until the November 2008 presidential election may seem like the blink of an eye, it is long enough for America’s opponents and enemies to take advantage of its slowed momentum to wreak plenty of damage.
The Iranians, for instance, know they are home and free to their nuclear bomb after US-backed European diplomacy and sanctions threats failed to deter them (as we reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 206). Iran’s rulers are now assured of one-and-a-half to two years in which to complete their weapons project undisturbed – unless Israel’s leaders secretly decide to take their installations out.
Washington receptive to Rafsanjani’s siren call
The free pass Washington has granted Tehran has tipped the scale of the June 17 Iranian presidential election in favor of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
He is the sole candidate the Iranians believe capable of upholding Tehran’s radical Islamic policy while at the same time doing business with Washington. Having gained the upper hand on the nuclear front, the Islamic regime regards itself rather than America as the true victor of the Iraq war. This mind-set has far-reaching ramifications for Iran-sponsored jihadist terrorist groups, Lebanon’s Hizballah, the Palestinian Jihad Islami and also Hamas – providing a boost to their aggressive posture against Israel.
In view of this radiating circle of influence, US officials are reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington and Tehran sources to be lending a receptive ear to the covert messages Rafsanjani has been beaming them via his family’s business connections in Pakistan, the Gulf and Germany. In those messages, he presents himself as the only Iranian leader with a chance of solving the nuclear predicament confronting Washington from the Islamic republic.
The wily Rafsanjani, who served as Ayatollah Khomeini’s pragmatic face, offers no guarantee of success. But his rising prominence looks like dimming the light of the rigidly hard-line supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – a definite plus given his role as top gun of Iran’s world terrorist machine.
Iraqi guerrilla groups are also capitalizing on the breathing space they think they have won from the Bush administration’s posture. To them Washington appears to have resigned itself to refraining from any drastic policy U-turns and also reached the limit of America’s military might for subduing their insurgency.
Baathist commanders and tacticians pulling the terror wires from Syria took note of official statements to the US media in April and early May predicting a possible wind-down of US troop levels in Iraq as early as 2006. Their intelligence on the ground is efficient enough to tell them that these predictions were unrealistic. Their response was a decision to combine all Iraqi and foreign forces fighting the US military, consolidate and redouble their onslaught.
Iraq‘s Sunnis ever harder to pin down
This decision sent Iraq’s death toll from guerrilla and terrorist action soaring in May beyond 750 Iraqis and 60 American troops.
In these circumstances it is hard to see how Sunni leaders marginalized in the new Iraq can be persuaded to jump aboard the Shiite-Kurdish dominated Iraqi government, even if a few would not be averse to a power-sharing role.
Still, the administration is loath to give up on its goal of cutting the Sunni minority into government. Of late, voices in Washington have begun suggesting that one day, in the long or “historic” term, Iraq could mature into a Middle Eastern Indonesia. The idea behind this concept is of an Iraq that continues to co-exist alongside a controlled and marginal volume of terror while blossoming into a democratic regional economic power.
Another model held up in Bush’s Washington is India, according to the rationale of a powerful country with a huge Muslim minority of more than 150 million, yet without Muslim terrorists or a single Indian al Qaeda detainee in any US detention facility worldwide.
Bush officials account for this phenomenon by the inclusion of Muslims in every level of government in New Delhi. They see no reason why this model cannot be replicated in Iraq – given enough time.
The two issues most exercising the Bush White House at this moment are Iran and the initiation of democracy in the Middle East.
A recent visitor to Washington, Egyptian prime minister Ahmed Nazif, reported after his White House visit that he could not believe his ears when Bush launched into a long and detailed analysis of the Egyptian political scene. Uncharacteristically, he rattled off the names of Egyptian politicians without glancing at a briefing paper. He seemed as familiar with Egypt’s gallery of politicians, proponents and opponents of president Hosni Mubarak, as he was with his close neighbors, the occupants of Capitol Hill. Either that, or he used an undetectable earpiece that fed him cues.
Wednesday, June 1, Bush stepped up the pressure on Mubarak personally. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive Cairo sources report that in a phone call, President Bush said some nice things but also told him that he expects the coming presidential elections in Egypt to be completely free. He said he wanted the Egyptian ruler to order a stop on the forcible dispersion of peaceful demonstrations. He also demanded that opposition and government candidates be given equal time on radio, television and newspapers.