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

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

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Iran's substantial influence among Iraqi Shiites also further complicates the policy equation for Washington: Even as it is seeking to isolate and pressure Tehran on the nuclear issue, the U.S. may be seeking Iran's active cooperation in stabilizing Iraq. The administration also alleges that Iran is making mischief in Iraq, and Tehran's more hawkish element may, indeed, see some advantage in acting in a manner designed to keep the U.S. military tied down in Iraq. But the two sides do, ironically, share an interest in seeing Iraq's elections go ahead as scheduled — for Tehran, they represent an historic opportunity to see a friendly government installed in Baghdad.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

Addressing North Korea's avowed nuclear capability has produced a similar disconnect between the U.S. and key regional partners. President Bush insists he'll deal with the issue only via the currently stalled six-party talks, at which South Korea, Russia, Japan and China are also present. While those countries all agree with the U.S. in principle that seeing North Korea go nuclear is unacceptable, China and South Korea, and to a lesser extent Russia, have repeatedly stressed that those talks will achieve nothing unless the U.S. is willing to make political concessions through some form of recognition of the North Korean regime and its security concerns. China and South Korea have urged the U.S. to hold bilateral talks with North Korea, and Beijing last week reiterated its belief that the onus is on Washington as well as Pyongyang to break the deadlock through confidence-building steps.

Not only is the Bush administration reluctant to offer any political concessions to North Korea, however, the hawks now ascendant in the administration made clear, during the first term, their preference for a policy aimed at regime change through tighter sanctions and an economic blockade. But piling on pressure for regime-change is firmly opposed by South Korea and China, who fear the chaos that might result — and without their support, tighter sanctions remain unlikely. Thus, while rhetorically speaking there's a consensus that a nuclear-armed North Korea is an unacceptable reality, it may already be an irreversible one since there are no good military options for reversing it.

After Arafat

Tony Blair spoke for every European, Arab and Muslim ally that has backed the U.S. either on Iraq or against al-Qaeda when he insisted, in his message congratulating President Bush for winning reelection, that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should now be the administration's central priority. The allies believe that the U.S. will be hampered in Iraq, and unlikely to politically defeat al-Qaeda, in the absence of a fair solution to that conflict. But there, too, the policies of the administration's first term now put it at a crossroads. Until now, the administration has put the onus entirely on the Palestinians for moving the process forward, insisting that they replace Yasser Arafat and make institutional reforms, as well as eliminating Hamas and other militant groups who have mounted terror attacks against Israelis, before expecting Israel to return to the negotiating table.

Most of the allies had viewed the Bush policy as too lopsided in favor of Israel, but the death of Arafat has created an opportunity — Blair was on the first plane over to press his case for the immediate convening of an international conference and other measures to kickstart the process, although he was in large part rebuffed. The issue has been, once again, postponed pending the outcome of Palestinian elections scheduled for January 9. Still, it doesn't take a soothsayer to predict the outcome: Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate former prime minister favored by Washington faces no serious challengers, and will almost certainly be comfortably returned. However, Abbas will likely be a transitional leader bridging the generation gap between Arafat's old guard and the leadership of the intifada generation, and he's unlikely to enjoy any greater authority over the various militant factions than he did when he was prime minister under Arafat. If he's expected by the U.S. and Israel to prove his bona fides by shutting down Hamas before political negotiations can begin, then he's likely to prove a major disappointment in Washington and Jerusalem. (Hamas is currently planning to contest legislative and municipal elections scheduled for next March, and on current indications it could expect to win up to 30 percent of the seats, cementing its place in the mainstream Palestinian polity — Abbas is more likely to resume his search for a ceasefire agreement with Hamas than to try at this stage to disarm the group.)

But an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement hinges on far more than the conduct of Palestinian politics. The essential decisions concern what the Oslo Agreement had deemed the "final status" issues: where to draw the boundaries between Israel and a Palestinian state, the fate of Israeli settlements and of Palestinian refugees, how to share Jerusalem and the vexed long-term question of sharing scarce water supplies, most of which originate in what would likely become Palestinian territory. And resolving those issues is, as it always was, going to require painful concessions from both sides. While the Palestinians are going to be expected to give up demanding the right of refugees to return to homes lost inside Israel in 1948, the Israelis are going to be expected to give up most of the West Bank and Gaza. It's worth noting that while Yasser Arafat is often chastised for his failure to accept the deal offered by Israel at Camp David, that deal was not accepted by Mahmoud Abbas, either. Equally important, of course, was its emphatic rejection by Ariel Sharon. If the administration is going to seriously pursue a two-state solution to the conflict, it will be forced to put pressure not only on the Palestinians, but also on the Sharon government to take steps it is currently reluctant to make. That would mean reversing the trend of the past four years, and it remains unclear whether the Bush administration is willing to go there — some British officials are inclined to see the dropping of Colin Powell, who advocated such a course, as a reason to avoid being optimistic. But the fact that a key ally such as Tony Blair has made firm action on the Israeli-Palestinian front a test of the administration's bona fides gong forward signals that those allies who have sacrificed most to stand with President Bush are now calling in their chits.

Building bridges with the allies alienated by its first-term policies may now be a stated objective of the Bush administration, and it may be of critical importance in addressing the looming nuclear crises. But it may also have become more difficult than ever to achieve.

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