By Tao Wenzhao
Three weeks have passed since the mid-term elections in the United States. The impasse in Iraq still poses a hard nut for the Bush government to crack: Disengaging the US troops from Iraq and at the same time steering the country clear of an overall civil war.
Leave or stay? It's a difficult choice. For Washington, Iraq is a hot potato much hotter than Viet Nam in the 1960s and '70s. This is because the United States cannot afford to withdraw from Iraq outright as it left Viet Nam in the mid-1970s. Once US troops pulled out from Viet Nam, the war ended. The much-feared domino effect seems not to have happened in Viet Nam in the wake of the US pull-out.
But Iraq is different, in the opinion of this author. Once US troops left, the sectarian conflicts and vendetta would blossom into a fully fledged civil war. As a matter of fact, the countries on the periphery of Iraq are already involved, with the Sunni sections in surrounding countries providing weapons to Iraqi Sunnis and Iran throwing its support behind the Shi'ites. This kind of support would turn into open involvement to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawn US troops. Iraq would, therefore, become a new source of chaos and tumult in the Middle East.
It would, therefore, simply not work if the United States totally disengaged itself and left Iraq at the mercy of perilous conditions. It seems that the US troops have to stay. But can anybody see light at the end of the tunnel?
Currently, bringing about national reconciliation in Iraq is virtually an impossible mission. The Sunnis lost more than they gained in the wake of the Iraq war waged by the United States and its allies against Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. The Sunnis find themselves put in a disadvantageous position by the constitution formulated after the war and they can hardly swallow that fact.
To make matters worse, the Sunni and Shi'ite sections are subdivided into different factions. At present, Iraq's army and police forces are in the hands of various factions. The officials in charge put their allegiance to the factions above their loyalty to the country. In this scenario, it is extremely difficult to satisfactorily meet the needs of all sections and factions in the redistribution of power, even though the Iraqi Government is reorganized along the lines suggested by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The countries on the periphery of Iraq are indispensable in resolving the issue. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has, in fact, conditionally offered to work together with Iran and Syria on the effort to stabilize the situation in Iraq.
The Baker-Hamilton Commission appointed by US President George W. Bush has met and discussed the situation in Iraq several times with Syrian officials recently. Imad Moustapha, Syrian ambassador to the United States, indicated that his country is willing to help bring stability to Iraq on certain conditions, since Syria maintains good relations with various sections active in Iraq's political arena.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on November 19, said Syria was ready for dialogue with the United States for the sake of peace and stability in Iraq and in the whole region.
Surprisingly, Iran offered to help. Speaking at a gathering on November 26, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran was ready to help the United States and Britain get out of the quagmire on condition that they refrain from bullying others.
Both countries' willingness to help has put the United States in an awkward position. Over a long period of time, Washington has considered Iran and Syria "patrons of terrorism," which primarily refers to Hamas and Hezbollah. The United States also accused Iran and Syria of conniving to filter armed elements into Iraq through porous Syrian-Iraqi and Iranian-Iraqi borders.
The United States is also working hard within the United Nations to make sure sanctions are imposed on Iran's uranium enrichment programs.
Readjusting relations with these two countries means that the United States admits its failure in Iraq and must enlist Iranian and Syrian help to clear up a messy situation. It is also tantamount to yielding the stage to the two, tipping the power balance in the region in favor of Iran.
In case Iran and Syria really help, they would ask for returns guaranteeing the Islamic system and tolerating Iran's uranium enrichment, which are really bitter pills for Washington to swallow.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated recently that the United States and she herself would get involved in negotiations with Iran if the latter agrees to ultimately give up its uranium enrichment plan. But Iran holds that uranium enrichment is its legitimate right as a nation.
The United States' Middle East policy is really caught in a very embarrassing situation.
The Bush administration now tries to woo moderate Arab countries where the Sunnis have a predominant presence. A flurry of diplomatic initiatives are, therefore, afoot. US Vice-President Dick Cheney toured Saudi Arabia on November 24 to talk about the situation in Iraq with Saudi leaders. President Bush is also expected in Jordan this week. Rice is scheduled to attend a Middle East conference in Jordan.
How will these initiatives impact Iraq? It remains to be seen.
Furthermore, the Bush government is confronted with another thorny question: The Middle East peace process is now at a standstill, or worse, backtracking.
The Clinton administration's Middle East policy revolved around promoting the Middle East peace process. Whereas, the Bush administration has been preoccupied with Iraq, in spite of the Middle East roadmap worked out in late 2003.
Moreover, the United States set about elbowing Yasir Arafat from the scene shortly after the roadmap was charted, believing Arafat supported terrorism. After Arafat's death, the United States thought Abbas, Arafat's successor, was a guy worth having dealings with.
But soon, Hamas won Palestine's Legislative Council elections and came to power. Washington refuses to have anything to do with Hamas, which is, by US definition, a terrorist organization.
To make matters worse, conflicts erupted between Israel and Hezbollah this summer, in which the United States took Israel's side, much to the resentment of the Arab world.
All this only impacts negatively on the Middle East peace process.
Some US think-tanks and diplomatic old hands believe that Washington's vision should be extended far beyond Iraq to cover the whole Middle East region, in which the Palestine issue constitutes the nucleus, influencing all other big issues.
On condition that the United States really helps push ahead the peace process in the region, moderate Arab governments would be largely encouraged and, in turn, will be able to do much more in fighting extremist forces within their countries and in playing a stabilizing role in the whole region.
All this would be significantly helpful for the United States' options in Iraq.
In view of all this, Washington must change its policy of partiality towards Israel and work much harder to drive forward the peace process.
Now, Palestinian factions have agreed to stop firing rockets at Israeli targets. In return, Israel has promised to call off its military operations in the Gaza Strip.
Can the United States seize the opportunity to advance the peace process? Let's wait and see.
(China Daily December 6, 2006)