By Shmuel Rosner
WASHINGTON - The incriminating memorandum was published in The New York Times on Wednesday morning. U.S. President George W. Bush's national security advisor, Stephen Hadley - so the report went - said he doubts whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki can control the sectarian violence in his country. A few hours later, Bush was scheduled to meet with Al-Maliki in Jordan. The Iraqi prime minister was insulted, and canceled the planned dinner with Bush and Jordan's King Abdullah.
The leak of the classified memo to The New York Times is liable to be seen as an exercise meant to embarrass the Bush administration, but it can also be depicted as a move engineered by the White House to pressure Al-Maliki with the message: If you don't improve your performance, the American president will be forced to consider other alternatives. Hadley says steps will need to be taken to strengthen the prime minister - steps that would be worth taking only if the Iraqi leader proves that he is up to the task of running the country.
Here, similarities can be drawn between the three fronts with which Bush is contending in his visits around the world this week - those same fronts which King Abdullah said this week, in an interview on a U.S. television station, are approaching civil war: Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. The U.S. president is trying to strengthen Al-Maliki, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. But how will the battered and bruised Bush summon the resources to help them?
The three leaders are similar, but there are also substantial differences between them. The Bush administration sees Al-Maliki as being insufficiently resolute to act in accordance with the interests that will calm his country. The White House is concerned that he is sometimes motivated by impulses that do not correspond with the objective. "He impressed me as a leader who wanted to be strong, but was having difficulty figuring out how to do so," Hadley wrote to Bush in the leaked memo.
The American position is different regarding Siniora: The Bush administration doesn't have a shadow of a doubt regarding his motives and intentions, but they understand full well that the weakness of his government doesn't allow him to do more. In other words, Siniora is the right person in the right place.
As for Abbas, the Americans are not worried about the purity of his intentions, but they think he too has difficulty understanding how to carry them out. And unlike with Siniora, they are not convinced that he will ever reach this understanding, even when he is handed the means and the resources. Perhaps, as a Bush administration official put it a few months ago, he has the will, but not the personality.
Yesterday in Jericho, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was supposed to give Abbas renewed support, but also to warn him that in light of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Sde Boker speech, it would be better if this time the Palestinians were to abandon the tradition of not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. [This article was written before Rice met with Abbas.]
The previous record was set in 1976, when seven Democratic senators competed for the right to represent their party in the presidential elections following the Nixon-Ford era. It is an impressive record, which is now in serious danger of being broken. This time, ahead of the 2008 presidential elections, nine senators are likely to run in the Democratic primaries. And who knows? Maybe they will manage to escape the sad fate of their predecessors, the senator of 1976: None of whom won. That honor went to Jimmy Carter, the relatively unknown governor of Georgia, who bypassed them all and sprinted to the White House, where he served a single term, and not a particularly successful one. His presidential legacy for future generations will be this: Even a retired president has the ability to be of some benefit and to cause not inconsiderable damage.
Carter's new and much talked-about book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," compares Israel's actions vis-a-vis the land of Palestine to those of South Africa in the days of apartheid. A quick and superficial scan of the book turns up no new or inflammatory disclosures, but it does contain some particularly harsh criticism. Carter, who has gone on an intensive tour to promote the book, has certainly noticed that the people interviewing him were less interested in Palestine this week and more interested in Iraq, as was Bush these past few days. When the arm of the powerful country is under threat of amputation, it doesn't think about the comprehensive treatment of an abscess elsewhere on the body, even if it has posed trouble for many years and will continue to do so after the stump heals. And indeed, this is one of the basic criticisms in Carter's book: There is not enough vigorous debate in the United States regarding the Palestinian problem. And this week, once again, it was not easy to find people interested in paying attention to this problem.
Carter attacked Bush on the Iraq issue, too: This war, he predicted, will be remembered as "one of the greatest blunders that American presidents have ever made." Although Carter didn't say so, he presumably meant that the Iraq war is far worse than his own failure to stop the Khomeini revolution in Iran and to rescue the American hostages in Tehran.
Then came the required comparisons to Vietnam, but nonetheless Carter managed, for a moment, to surprise. The public seems to have decided some time ago that a civil war is under way in Iraq, but the Bush administration has persistently denied it. However, the former president actually sided with Bush, saying, "I think civil war is a more serious circumstance than exists in Iraq." And Carter, who has been appointed by himself and others as peace envoy to every conflict and conflagration around the world, has seen a civil war or two in his life.
Republican Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska is one of those nine Senate wonders who look into a mirror and think that the image of the next president is peering out at them. Hagel jumped to the top twice this week, with the generous assistance of The Washington Post editorial page. The first time, he published a sober and profound op-ed piece about the war, and the second time, he starred in a column by David Ignatius, headlined "Hagel's Moment?"
If Bush is trying to assign greater responsibility to Al-Maliki, Hagel takes a shortcut and assigns the responsibility to all Iraqis. It's not America that will win or lose in the war, he said, since it's the Iraqis' future that's on the line. "Iraq is not a prize to be won or lost," the senator wrote. And the time to send military reinforcements, he added, is long past.
Hagel's op-ed aroused great interest. He wrote that the renewal of diplomatic ties between Iraq and Syria has generated much hope, since it proves that only "regional powers will fill regional vacuums." Hagel thinks it will take time and that blood will certainly be spilled - in part due to the United States' inability to generate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - but that ultimately, the Middle East will reorganize on its own. Hagel does not accept former secretary of defense Colin Powell's "you break it, you buy it" concept - i.e., that since the United States broke Iraq, it has to rebuild it. Hagel is prepared to leave Iraq, and let the Iraqis "break their heads" over it.
On Monday, three experts discussed the future of U.S.-Syria relations at the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan institution established by Congress to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts. They too spoke, briefly, about the importance of Hagel's op-ed. But the discussion focused on James Baker, the secretary of state under George Bush, Sr., who was called on to save the administration of Bush, Jr. from the mire of Iraq and who will submit his recommendations next Wednesday.
Rumor, and leaked information, has it that Baker plans to recommend a dialogue with Syria. But this week the administration signaled that it is not interested in such a recommendation. Well, not the entire administration. Hadley told reporters that Ehud Olmert's refusal to respond to Syrian President Bashar Assad's public calls for negotiations over the Golan Heights is reasonable. On the other hand, Bush's candidate for secretary of defense, Robert Gates, supports a dialogue with Syria. In written testimony he submitted to the Senate this week, ahead of the confirmation hearing he faces, Gates said he does not necessarily support a bilateral framework for the dialogue with Syria, suggesting it could take place within the framework of a "regional conference" - one of the options that Baker is expected to recommend.
Regional conferences - in the spirit of the Madrid conference he convened at the beginning of the 1990s and whose success is debatable - are Baker's favored formula for solving problems in the Middle East.
Baker has a routine shtick for meeting guests from Israel. He always mentions his memories of his difficult encounters with former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, ending with what is meant to be a kind of happy surprise: Of all the Israeli leaders, Baker liked meeting with Shamir best, because he know that he was as good as his word.
The more time elapses since the establishment of the committee Baker heads, the greater the suspicion that this smart and experienced politician does not have much in the way of new suggestions - only the same old formulas that sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, and that aren't necessarily suitable right now. "Political realism is dead," an Israeli observer who shall remain unnamed said two weeks ago. There are quite a few Americans who agree with him: It's impossible to fit the solutions of the 20th century to the problems of the 21st.
Robert Satloff, head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said at the conference on Syria that domino theories don't work well in the Middle East. He noted that angry predictions that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could spread to neighboring states or that the entire region could erupt in violence have never panned out. Comments made by Hadley this week reflect a similar attitude: Peace between Israel and the Palestinians is important and worthy of the effort, but it is not remotely related to the violent situation in Iraq or to other, no less severe, problems in the Middle East.
Satloff said Syria doesn't have anything to offer the United States at the moment. It won't help solve the problems in Iraq, and there is only a slim chance that it will agree to cut ties with Iran or Hezbollah. The other two members of the panel - Robert Malley, who was a member of the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, and Scott Lasensky from the United States Institute of Peace - agreed with Satloff. Malley said it wasn't clear to him what America is trying to do in Syria, and predicted a glum and volatile future for Lebanon. For that reason, he suggested precisely what the Bush administration is trying to avoid: taking Syria into account in efforts to stabilize Lebanon.