To understand why George Bush, the US president, is visiting the Middle East and what he seeks to accomplish, re-read the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission from December 2006, subtract what has been implemented since then and you are left with a must-do list in this troubled region.
Bush’s visit to Israel and the occupied territories underlined his intentions to continue implementing the recommendations of the commission – also known as the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) – albeit slowly, superficially and at times clumsily in order to give the impression of being bold and righteous.
Nevertheless, more than a year after its publication, the sobering bi-partisan ISG report remains the administration’s only path out of the Middle East quagmire.
Chief among its 79 recommendations is the training of Iraqi forces to ‘stand up’ so that US troops stand down and walk away. The report also pushes for constructive regional involvement from Iraq’s neighbours and serious effort to resolve the Palestinian question.
No Bush administration official understood this better than Robert Gates, an ISG member and secretary of defence.
Since he succeeded Donald Rumsfeld in November 2006, this “political realist” at the helm of the Pentagon has been implementing the commission’s proposals in all but name and according to the administration’s own operative-mode, calendar and priorities.
Stability in Iraq
The first recommendation Gates implemented, the surge, was the least favoured.
While the ISG “rejected” a troop increase, it did support a “surge of American combat forces to stabilise Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission” if the generals deemed it necessary.
The ISG authors believed there was no military solution to the Iraq conflict and therefore strongly recommended that the administration place greater emphasis on political solutions “to ensure disaffected groups (specifically the Sunnis) are brought into Iraq’s political process”.
The administration convinced the Iraqi government to commit to a number of benchmarks that include building a better army, ending sectarian violence, and adopting equitable distribution of oil revenues, among others.
It also emphasised that it sent the extra troops only after the Iraqi government promised a “fundamental” change in policy.
Meanwhile, improved relations between the US military and a number of tribal opposition Sunni groups have enticed the White House to pressure the Shia-controlled government of Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister, to open up.
But in the absence of political reconciliation, and with Iraq’s ethnic groups becoming better armed and more sectarian, an all-out civil war becomes more likely today than ever before.
The ISG also made it clear that reconciliation is more likely to succeed through a regional diplomatic offensive which could contain and resolve Iraq’s conflicts.
The Bush administration has already participated in three mid-level talks with Iran, Syria, Turkey and other regional and international powers over Iraq, but it is far from the ISG’s strongly advised regional conference.
Although the administration has been instrumental in bringing the aforementioned to the negotiating table, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, has bizarrely insisted it was Iraq, not the US, who called for the talks.
Nonetheless, and despite the recent naval incident in the Persian Gulf, American and Iranian officials have sounded more conciliatory over the last four weeks than during the previous four years.
For their part, US generals speak of increased Iranian security cooperation to curb the smuggling of arms and fighters across the border and also restrain armed groups like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army.
Washington’s ‘psychological war’ in the form of a military build-up, or ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in the Persian Gulf, might have failed to stop Iran from enriching Uranium, but it did convince Tehran to make positive gestures towards Washington.
Begin with Iran
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, struck a mild tone during his December 11 press conference when he called for dialogue with Washington and refrained from the usual anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric.
His participation in the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Doha in early December 2007 followed by a Saudi Arabian invitation to perform the Hajj were not discouraged by Washington.
With the Iran nuclear roadblock mostly out of the way, thanks to the (incidental?) National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) findings, Iran’s imminent threat status has now been downgraded.
This effectively removes the main obstacle which had prevented US-Iran coordination over the future of Iraq.
Likewise, US-Syrian relations have started to come out of the deep freeze with the latter’s recent cooperation on border security.
According to Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, the cooperation with Syria has led to a 70 per cent decline in the number of fighters infiltrating across the border.
Syria and many of its Arab counterparts accepted Washington’s invitation to attend the Annapolis meeting which promised to move towards negotiating the hardcore stumbling blocks to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The overdue “peace conference” is a first step in the implementation of another important ISG recommendation: seeking agreements on all final status issues of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and the repatriation of Palestinian refugees by the end of 2008.
A year behind the ISG’ proposed schedule to redeploy most forces out of Iraq, US officials now believe the army could reduce its brigades to the pre-surge levels,as more soldiers take on the role of training the Iraqi Army.
This could prove to be too little and too late to salvage whatever is left of Iraq’s unity and America’s credibility, especially that the obstacles and challenges in 2008 are all too daunting.
Leaning on friends
It is perhaps also too late in the day for Bush to effect major change. But what he needs to do has never been clearer.
The US president must pressure his Israeli allies to be more forthcoming in their talks with the Palestinians. He must also pressure his Baghdad allies to do more for national reconciliation in Iraq.
Both governments know all too well that they must share power and resources equitably with the other inhabitants of the land as preconditions to ending the the bloodshed.
The Bush administration would be wise to ensure that Iraq delivers on the “benchmarks” and Israel fulfils its obligations on the “final status issues” to avoid escalation in the region.
But judging by Bush’s statements at the end of his visit to Israel and Palestine, that looks hardly forthcoming.
No less challenging to the Bush administration is the need to overcome the hawkish and neoconservative detractors in its midst in order to reverse its menacing tone toward Tehran and Damascus.
The administration also needs to be ready and willing to pay the geopolitical price for a long-term strategic cooperation over Iraq.
This includes among others, Washington’s commitment to refrain from calling for regime change and instead accepting both Iran and Syria’s regional roles as part of a new regional security model fashioned on the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
For Damascus, Washington should recognise that Syria’s special relationship with Lebanon is paramount and also help in securing Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
To better implement the ISG recommendations, the Bush administration must also encourage the UN Security Council to invite the leaders of Iraq’s neighbors to an international conference that puts the necessary pressures on the Iraqis to reach political reconciliation.
Otherwise, 2008 will witness the violent break-up of Iraq leading to terrible consequences for the region.
MARWAN BISHARA is a senior political analyst for Al Jazeera.