Keywords: Bush administration; Middle East strategy; Iran; Syria; Hezbollah; Prince Bandar; Saudi Arabia; John Negroponte; al-Qaeda; Nasrallah; George Friedman; Seymour Hersh.
Today I’ve read two surprising articles about the Bush administration’s new Middle East policies — and they look contradictory to me. But then, who expects logic?
The first article is a new Stratfor article by George Friedman analyzing the meeting of US, Iranian, and Syrian diplomats in Baghdad on March 10. As he points out, they all deny that there is anything much afoot — but that only proves that these talks are actually rather promising. That they are taking place at all is evidence that Bush is looking for a settlement in Iraq and is keen enough for it to swallow his pride and negotiate with the Shiite groups that he most fears and hates. Back room negotiations have probably gone on for a while, but these talks are fully announced, which is a good sign that they are going well. Sure, that’s only Friedman’s guess, but it sounds plausible to me.
He also points out that there is a window of opportunity for such talks right now because the Democrats have failed to formulate a coherent policy in Iraq, which reduces the prospect that they will force imminent changes in US strategy.
Friedman further argues that there are reasons why Iran needs to reduce the danger in the course that the reckless President Ahmedinejad has been pursuing. Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has warned his countrymen not to underestimate the United States, which is a “wounded tiger.” Besides, the Iranian nuclear bomb is still years away from real, and Hezbollah is not interested in becoming a global suicide bomber just to please Iran. Hence the Iranians have their own pressing reasons to negotiate a solution to the crisis. Syria, on the other hand, is not the key player in these negotiations.
Thus Friedman’s reading of the situation is that an agreement may be approaching between the US and the most powerful Shiite countries in the region.
Maybe so, but that does not mean the US is suddenly playing nice with the Shiites. Far from it, if we listen to Seymour Hersh, investigative journalist extraordinaire. In a March 5 piece in The New Yorker, Hersh explains the new Middle East strategy of the Bush administration in quite different terms. He had interviewed numerous people in Washington and the Middle East, including Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. He says, remarkably, that the United States is funding three dangerously aggressive Sunni jihadist groups that are keen to “take on” Hezbollah and the Shiites more generally.
This is quite a reversal, of course. After the Iranian revolution of 1979,m the United States broke with Iran and cultivated closer relations with the leaders of the Sunni Arab states, especially Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. However, al-Qaeda emerged from the extremist Sunni groups in Saudi Arabia. The US invasion of Iraq was influenced by the theory that the majority of the population there was Shiite and could, therefore, form a dominant political force in a newly democratic state, thus balancing the influence of Sunni extremists. As we have seen, however, the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is hardly able to offer this kind of balance or stability. Besides, the Iraq Shia are more deeply influenced by their Iranian brethren than the Washington neoconservativs had expected. The outcome of the invasion has been a strengthening of Iranian influence. Moreover, the close relationship between Hezbollah and Iran gives the United States government every reason for anxiety about their declining position in the region. And in the Middle East, the Sunni states are terrified about the Shia resurgence.
Hence the new US strategy: support the Sunni who may very well attack the Shiites. Condoleezza Rice explained this to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January as a policy of separating “reformers” and “extremists” in the Middle East. Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah are, by her definition, the main extremists. (Syria’s population is mainly Sunni, but members of the Alawi sect.) Bush has been pointing out the dangers posed to American troops by Shiite terrorist incursions across the border from Iran into Iraq. In fact, however, the casualties inflicted on Americans in Iraq by Sunnis is far greater than anything Iran has done.
Prince Bandar (see photo) is the Saudi national security advisor, but his influence in Washington remains strong. He served there as Ambassador for 22 years, forging a friendship with the Bush family and with Cheney. He and the other Saudi royals are intent upon halting the growth of Shiite power in the Middle East. They have deep pockets, as well as long-term friendly relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunni extremists, the Salafis, who regard the Shiites as apostates. Bandar’s fingerprints are all over the new Bush administration strategy.
American, European, and Arab officials told Hersh that the Siniora government of Lebanon had allowed US aid to end up in the hands of Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah, Hersh says. They all have ideological ties with al-Qaeda.
A senior Lebanese government official acknowledged to Hersh that there are al-Qaeda types operating in Lebanon. That government is unable to get rid of them, nor can it meet their demands.
Robert Baer, a former CIA agent in Lebanon, had been severely critical of Hezbollah in times past. However, now he worries about the trouble coming from the Sunni side. He told Hersh, “We’ve got Sunni Arabs preparing for cataclysmic conflict, and we will need somebody to protect the Christians in Lebanon. It used to be the French and the United States who would do it, and now it’s going to b Nasrallah and the Shiites.”
People in Washington see the new Bush administration strategy as resembling the Iran-Contra scandal. Congress is not being briefed on the full extent of the US-Saudi covert operations. Hersh has inferred that John Negroponte’s career change was influenced by the parallels that he saw between the current situation and that earlier one. Negroponte had been the director of Intelligence, but he did not see eye-to-eye with Cheney, and was considered too much of a stickler for ethics, so he gave up that position and took a second-level job as deputy secretary of state.
So what does all this add up to? Beats me. On the one hand, President Bush is running cover operations against the Shiites, funneling money to support their arch enemies, three jihadist Sunni militias with ideological links to al-Qaeda, without congressional authorization. This risky maneuver can bring even more disgrace upon him, just as the Iran-Contra scandal humiliated Ronald Reagan.
At the same time, the Bush administration is negotiating with those same Shiite states, and there is some reason to hope that a genuine breakthrough to peace may result. Which is the genuine strategy?
Is this logical or am I missing something?