Analysis: Bush's Daunting Task in the Mideast and North Korea

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MIKE NELSON / EPA

Outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell confers with Iraq's neighbors at the Sharm el Sheikh summit

President Bush has spoken in recent weeks of how he plans to spend the "political capital" accumulated during the election on his policy priorities. Domestically, his party's control of both chambers of congress certainly loosens restraints on the president's pursuit of his legislative agenda. But the challenges posed by four major foreign policy crises are made more acute by the fact that the president's "political capital" is not denominated in a convertible currency — his election victory has done nothing to alter the skepticism of many of Washington's European, Asian and Arab allies over Bush administration policies towards the danger of nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran, the troubled Iraqi transition and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But in addressing all four challenges, the Bush administration may now find it needs the help of these skeptical allies more than ever.

Colin, Condi and the Mending of Fences

President Bush's replacement of Colin Powell with Condolleeza Rice as Secretary of State drew an almost audible groan from within the corridors of power in Europe, where it was read as the final victory of the administration's hawks over its voices of moderation. Dr. Rice, of course, is intimately associated with precisely those policy choices on Iraq and Israel-Palestine that most alarmed many U.S. allies during the administration's first term. At the same time, however, those allies may take some comfort in the fact that this time around, they'll be dealing with a Secretary of State who actually has the president's ear and a measure of influence in White House decision making. Dealing with the Bush administration via Secretary Powell, after all, was a little like dealing with Iran via its reformist president Mohammed Khatami — a nice guy who speaks the same genteel language as his Western counterparts and is inclined to reach accommodation on most issues, but who remains ultimately powerless in the strategic decision-making in his capital. Still, Rice is unlikely to find European, Arab and Asian allies any more inclined to follow the policies of President Bush now that he's won reelection.

It's not as if any traditional allies actually stand in Washington's way, having learned from the prewar standoff over Iraq at the UN Security Council that the Bush administration will not be restrained from starting a war by the absence of an international mandate. Instead, they stand back and wait for the U.S. to face the consequences of what they regard as reckless choices.

Sharing the Iraq Burden?

Iraq may be a prime example of how President Bush's portfolio of "political capital" may have actually diminished, rather than grown, since he went to war some 20 months ago. By measure of boots on the ground, his coalition was narrow to begin with, but today it is smaller than when the war began, following the departure of troops from a number of European and Latin American countries, and plans for others to leave in the next four months. European allies who backed the war despite overwhelming domestic opposition suffered a major credibility blow when the weapons of mass destruction cited as the reason for invading failed to materialize. Even more damaging was the fact that the occupation, far from a triumphant liberation celebrated by most Iraqis, has turned into a bitter and bloody war of insurgency and counterinsurgency.

The U.S. is now likely to carry the bulk of the Iraq security burden for the foreseeable future. Iraq's nascent security forces show little ability to stand alone against the insurgency any time soon, never mind create the basis of a national army capable of defending the country's borders against foreign attack. And the elections scheduled for January 30 are unlikely to end the insurgency. If the projected Sunni boycott transpires and Shiite religious parties, as expected, dominate at the polls, the conflict may even widen and deepen following the election. The ability of the U.S. to achieve its goals in Iraq may come to depend on achieving a consensus with Iraq's neighbors, and other allies, over the country's immediate future. The neighbor with the greatest influence in Iraq will almost certainly be Iran, which has close ties with the full spectrum of the Shiite religious parties. The administration has taken important steps towards international and regional consensus over Iraq during the past week, in securing European agreement to write off a substantial portion of Iraq's debt, and in opening frank discussions on managing the situation in Iraq with all of the neighbors, including Iran, at a summit hosted by Egypt in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Translating the nominal consensus on Iraq recorded at Sharm el-Sheikh — support for the January elections, denunciation of terrorism — into the sort of active support that has made a relative success of a similar agreement (involving both the U.S. and Iran) on Afghanistan, however, will take time, and success may be linked with the Bush administration's handling of its two other regional priorities, Iran and Israel-Palestine.

Iran: The Limits on Unilateralism

Its status as the 500lb gorilla among the world's militaries gives the U.S. the wherewithal, even when acting alone, to knock over just about any regime of its choosing — even if Iraq has served as a reminder of the difficulty of pacifying an occupied country. Still, the primary component of the administration's preferred strategy for curbing Iran and North Korea's nuclear ambitions is to use sanctions to make the cost of going nuclear prohibitive to regimes whose survival depends on integration with the world economy. But the U.S. hardly trades with Iran or North Korea, so a meaningful sanctions regime requires winning allied backing. Yet, right now, most of the key allies on whose support a sanctions regime would depend are not on board with the Bush administration's approach to either Iran or North Korea.

Despite deep skepticism from Washington, the European Union appears to have successfully negotiated a deal with Tehran under which it would cease the uranium enrichment activities that, while legal under the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty, nonetheless have been conducted partly in secret, and certainly give Iran the capacity to create weapons-grade fissile material. Washington suspects Iran is playing for time, cutting deals for conditional suspensions of its enrichment program in order to avoid falling afoul of the international community, but nonetheless nurturing the intent — and, partly in secret, partly in the open, the means — to pursue nuclear weapons. The Europeans see the issues as more complex, with Iraq clearly putting in place the means to pursue a nuclear option, but not yet irrevocably committed to its realization. And they advocate offering the regime political and economic incentives for abandoning that option, rather than threatening sanctions as a step towards regime change.

The difference is playing out concretely this week at the IAEA, where Iran's recent steps have averted a crisis, but the U.S. wants to ensure compliance with the no-enrichment deal by inserting a clause that would trigger UN Security Council action if Iraq is found non-compliant. The Bush administration is unlikely to succeed, however, in getting Iran raked over the coals at the Security Council, or threatened with sanctions, for a number of reasons. Some are simply commercial: China, which has veto power at the Security Council, is fast emerging as the leading buyer of Iran's oil and natural gas exports, and the thirst for scarce energy resources of the burgeoning Chinese economy makes sanctions against Iran intolerable to Beijing.

Most UN member states believe the Bush administration used the fact that Iraq had not been certified by the Security Council as compliant with its disarmament obligations as a pretext for invading, even though, as Secretary General Kofi Annan himself has charged, the Council provided no legal authorization for the invasion. Many foreign governments fear that Washington hopes to bring the Iran matter to the Security Council simply to provide a pretext for another military action that would be opposed by most of the international community. And last week's allegations by outgoing Secretary of State Powell that Iran was developing nuclear-capable missile warheads — reportedly based on a single intelligence source whose credibility could not be confirmed — simply highlighted the sense of déjà vu.

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