George W. of Arabia

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Bush, Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Ariel Sharon close their summit meeting at the Royal Palace in Aqaba, Jordan

As the first Middle East trip of his presidency closes, George W. Bush finds himself as deeply involved and committed to the politics of the region as any Arab or Israeli leader. In promising to "ride herd" on the Israelis and Palestinians to get them moving along his "roadmap" to peace, Bush has made his administration directly responsible for overseeing the day-to-day implementation and mediation of a new peace process that has aroused little optimism in the region. And he's taking on the role alongside the epic challenge of occupying and remaking Iraq.

Iraq is the key, in the Bush administration's most optimistic scenario, to remaking the Middle East to drain the swamp that breeds international terrorism. A swift and decisive military victory has provided an awesome demonstration of U.S. power and resolve, and struck down the traditional boast of Osama bin Laden's propagandists that the U.S. is afraid of a fight. Considerably less certain, however, are the prospects for a rapid postwar transition in which Iraq becomes the Arab world's first democracy with a prosperity and Western orientation Washington hopes will serve as a wakeup call to a deeply troubled region.

The U.S. hoped to topple the tyrant, restore basic services and then quickly transfer power to a government led by Iraqi exiles cultivated in Western capitals. Instead, it has quickly become clear that Washington will be forced to shoulder the bulk of the political, economic and, particularly, military burden of a long-term occupation. The political and military uncertainty on the ground has indefinitely postponed the transfer of power to an Iraqi interim government, much to the chagrin of the previously exiled groups that had been working with Washington. And whereas the Pentagon had hoped to begin withdrawing many of the approximately 150,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq, it instead finds itself having sent in 20,000 reinforcements — and military observers in Iraq think more may be needed. The British have around 20,000 troops still in Iraq, and the U.S. had hoped that European nations that had joined the "coalition of the willing" would between them contribute a further 30,000, although current indications are they're likely to send far fewer.

Washington will also be expected to pick up most of the tab on an occupation mission whose cost has not yet been revealed to Capitol Hill, although current estimates run upward of $45 billion for the first year. And having accepted the role as Iraq's effective government for the next year and quite probably beyond, the Bush administration now finds itself confronting problems quite familiar to the Arab leaders with whom he met on Tuesday in Egypt: How to foster democracy in a context where the majority of voters may well favor extremists; how to create legitimate institutions for public participation in government while maintaining overall control; finding the proper role for religious authorities in a culture where church and state are not always separated and where the clergy have greater legitimacy than politicians; how to promote human rights and the rule of law at the same time as waging a merciless war on terrorism. President Bush went to Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss the region's problems with pro-Western leaders of Arab countries, having effectively become one himself.

Some 41 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq over the past six weeks, the latest one on Thursday when a rocket-propelled grenade struck an American vehicle in the town of Fallujah. Although more have been killed in accidents than in attacks thus far, there's certainly an uptick in hit-and-run strikes by Iraqi fighters sheltering in the civilian population. U.S. officials suspect Saddam loyalists for the attacks, which have been mostly concentrated north of the capital in predominantly Sunni Muslim strongholds of the Baath Party.

The pool of potential recruits for such an insurgency has certainly grown in recent weeks, with the U.S. decision to dissolve the Iraqi military, leaving some 400,000 Iraqi breadwinners with no income. Some 3,000 protested angrily this week in Baghdad, and threatened to take up arms against the U.S. unless they're paid. U.S. administrator Paul Bremer has indicated that the occupying authority will start recruitment for a new national army at the end of this month, but the force would eventually comprise only 40,000 personnel. That leaves hundreds of thousands of military men out in the cold, which together with the 30,000 senior Baathists precluded from public service, equals a very large constituency of Iraqis with little stake in the success of the new order. They're angry and humiliated, have a history of organization, military training and access to weapons. Senior Baathists who have eluded capture reportedly have access to significant amounts of cash that could help fuel an insurgency, and there's considerable hostility towards U.S. forces among the local population in the predominantly Sunni areas north and west of the capital. U.S. officials are hoping that the gradual restoring services and normality will blunt the anger — and they're planning to beef up their military presence in some of the areas where they've been attacked.

Armed harassment by Baathist sympathizers is unlikely to grow into a nationwide insurgency, however, because of the history and demographics of Iraq. The Sunnis, after all, constitute only 15 percent of the total population, and although there are mounting signs of disaffection with the occupation among the Shiite majority, they're also the longest-suffering victims of Baathist tyranny and are unlikely to make common cause with their former tormentors.

Still, problems lie ahead on the Shiite front, too: Many Shiite community leaders remain suspicious of U.S. intentions, while the U.S. is on the lookout for Iranian influence. The Shiite clerics that have stepped into the leadership vacuum left by the regime's collapse have mostly avoided confrontation with the U.S. and British authorities, but continue to demand the right of Iraqis to govern themselves. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq is particularly unhappy about Bremer's decision to scrap plans to elect an Iraqi interim government at a national assembly that would have been held in July. And they are complying with Bremer's order that all militia be disarmed by giving up their heavy weaponry, although they appear set, at least for now, to retain light arms.

Opposition groups ranging from SCIRI to the Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress are challenging Bremer's plan to elect a 35-member consultative body to advise him on political decisions, and have threatened to hold their national assembly in defiance of his edicts. But managing the competing claims of rival Iraqi groups amid mounting tension, fighting the Baathist holdouts while working to restore security and basic services are now part of the administration's daily agenda in Iraq.

But while remaking Iraq requires a massive commitment of personnel and treasure on a long-term basis, the day-to-day running of the program remains firmly in the hands of Paul Bremer and the U.S. military commanders there. Moving Israelis and Palestinians along the "roadmap" map requires no comparable investment, but it could prove far more taxing on the time and energy of the administration. The gulf that remains between the Israelis' and Palestinians' understanding of what the "roadmap" will require of them and the vagueness over how their promises are to be implemented suggests the plan will require considerable, ongoing micro-management. Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas are not sitting together because they've recognized each other as kindred spirits; they were at Aqaba because Bush told them to be. And the best hope is that they'll continue to do what Bush tells them to do, which, of course, requires constant monitoring and engagement.

President Bush has appointed a mediator and a team of diplomats and intelligence officials to monitor and assist in implementation of the "roadmap." But precedent suggests that at the first sign of any disagreement — and there will certainly be many — both parties will be on the phone to the White House. Sharon, in particular, who has already held 8 meetings with President Bush since both men assumed office, has a habit of going straight to the top, preferring to bypass even Secretary of State Powell, and barely registers the presence of lesser envoys. He knows he has the President's ear, after all.

Already, the Palestinian plan for dealing with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others who have waged terror attacks — negotiating a cease-fire, and later integrating their fighters into the Palestinian security forces has been dismissed by the Israelis as insufficient. It's easy for Abbas to declare an end to the "armed intifada" when, in reality, he doesn't speak for any of the organizations who have been waging it, and his ability to deliver their compliance remains to be proven. The Palestinians, meanwhile, have made clear they want to see a lot more than the evacuation of empty settlement outposts as a signal that the "roadmap" process can, indeed, lead to an end of the occupation. And, as of Wednesday, it may well fall to the White House to play both coach and referee on a day to day basis — a process veterans of previous efforts may inclined to compare less with "riding herd," than with herding cats.