Battered Bush shows new zeal for diplomacy
THE Bush administration has not been known for dramatic policy shifts, until last week.
For while the US President was making tentative noises that Syria and Iran might have a role to play in salvaging something from the wreckage of Iraq, the previously unthinkable was already happening.
Damascus and Tehran have been talking to senior Washington diplomats and advisers about their role in creating some kind of stability in the region.
James Baker, the former Secretary of State leading a task force of Washington's "wise men" to try to find the most palatable policy options available is acting as a proxy for the administration as it tries to persuade Iran to put pressure on Shi'ites to compromise while also pressuring Syria to use its influence with the Sunni leaders of the insurgency.
The US's new willingness to engage Iran was demonstrated when Baker recently had a three-hour dinner with Tehran's ambassador to the UN.
Baker has also met the Syrian ambassador to the US and the Syrian foreign minister on several occasions. The chairman of the Iraq Study Group had a simple question: "What would it take Syria to help on Iraq?"
"We were very candid with each other," Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador in Washington, said. "We explained to them why it is in our own national interest to try to help stabilise the situation in Iraq."
Although the US is not officially speaking with either Damascus or Tehran, Baker's talks point the way towards a future in which it is compelled to shift direction in private, even if it continues to take a hard line publicly.
Baker himself has repeatedly argued that "it is not appeasement to talk to your enemies". Even so, the remaining hawks in the administration ask what possible carrots the US can offer Syria and Iran - the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism - in return for their help in Iraq that would not themselves negate key elements of American foreign policy.
The Baker view, however, has at least one powerful ally in the administration. Robert Gates, nominated to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defence, is also in favour of talks with Iran and Syria. Gates, who is currently serving as a member of the Iraq Study Group, will now advocate engagement from inside the administration.
The alternatives to talks - possibly via an international conference - are becoming progressively less tenable in any case. The US position in Iraq is, at best, "drifting sideways", according to Senator John Warner, a former Secretary of the Navy and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In Washington the mood is resigned and gloomy as it becomes clear the choices available to the US are between grim and grimmer options in Iraq.
This was demonstrated last weekend when a White House meeting of the President's key foreign and national security policy advisers considered an "unleash the Shi'ites" policy that would allow the Shia majority in Iraq to use whatever means necessary - and as many dead bodies as it takes - to stamp out the insurgency. A green light for civil war, it remains an option of final resort.
Gates's arrival at the Pentagon demonstrates the eclipse of the 'America alone' hawks and the advent of a new recognition that there are limits to what the US can hope to achieve, and places a premium on diplomacy.
This bleak realism is likely to govern the Bush administration's approach during the President's final two years in office: salvage what can be salvaged and hope for the best.
Democrats have already concluded that Iraq is a lost cause.
Nonetheless, the military this week rejected Democrat demands that the Pentagon should - or could - draw up plans to leave Iraq inside the next six months. General John Abizaid was adamant that such a move would cause more problems than it could hope to solve.
Democrats who had hoped to use their victory in the midterm elections against the administration's Iraq policy are likely to be disappointed. Although behind-the-scenes activity in search of a solution is likely to increase, the President will not publicly bow to Democratic demands for a speedier withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
In any case, the President is not for turning. In Vietnam on Friday, Bush argued that the lesson the Vietnam War should teach America was that "we'll succeed unless we quit".
"History has a long march to it," said Bush. But the time he has to beat the drum for his own policy - and legacy - is running out fast.
• American and Iraqi forces raided a Shi'ite militia stronghold in Baghdad yesterday in an unsuccessful search for victims of a mass kidnapping from a government ministry.
Iraqi soldiers backed up by US helicopters swept through the Sadr City section of the capital after intelligence indicated that an armed group was holding some of the scores of Iraqis who were snatched from a Higher Education Ministry office building in Baghdad last Tuesday.
No one was killed, injured or detained during the raid.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 12 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: South east
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: West