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Seeking Options On Iraq

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By David Ignatius
Friday, November 3, 2006

Following Tuesday's elections, President Bush will face some of the most difficult decisions of his presidency as he struggles to craft a strategy for dealing with the ruinous mess in Iraq. He will have to do what he has sometimes found hardest: make a decisive choice among conflicting recommendations from his advisers.

The coming policy debate will be shaped by the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee Hamilton. But it will also involve basic conflicts that have emerged in the past year over Middle East strategy -- for which the rough Beltway shorthand would be Condoleezza Rice's State Department vs. the office of Vice President Cheney.

The central question for Bush is the one that's likely to be at the center of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations: Is America's best hope for stabilizing Iraq a broad effort to resolve tensions in the Middle East, including the Arab-Israeli dispute? This comprehensive regional approach to Iraq is controversial for two reasons: The United States would have to engage Iraq's troublesome neighbors, Iran and Syria; and it would have to push Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians as part of a broader peace deal.

A hint that the administration (or at least a faction of it) is considering such an approach came in a Sept. 15 speech by Philip Zelikow, counselor to Rice, at a gathering of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He talked about the need to maintain a coalition of Europeans and moderate Arabs to solve problems such as Iraq and Iran, and then argued: "What would bind that coalition and help keep them together is a sense that the Arab-Israeli issues are being addressed." His speech led Shmuel Rosner, the chief U.S. correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, to wonder in his blog: "Does it really mean a major shift in U.S. policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict?"

Baker would be an ideal catalyst for such a regional approach, in part because he traveled that road once before with the 1991 Madrid peace conference. That meeting brought together all the major global and regional powers to support a round of peacemaking that led to a treaty between Israel and Jordan, negotiations between Israel and the Syrians, and, eventually, the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. To begin exploring the possibility of a new regional dialogue, Baker has already met privately with Iranian and Syrian diplomats.

Some hard-liners are nervous about Baker. A National Security Council staffer commented tartly a few weeks ago that Baker isn't secretary of state and doesn't speak for Bush. And the president himself, though he admires Baker's negotiating skills, worries that an overeager former secretary of state might hop on a plane for Tehran tomorrow if he had his way.

Britain has been testing the waters for a regional approach. Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the top foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, visited Damascus this week for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his intelligence chiefs. Sheinwald had visited Washington a week before to plan the trip with senior administration officials who, though skeptical about whether the mission would accomplish much, gave it their blessing.

Sheinwald presented a series of British-U.S. concerns, including Syria's role in providing a base for Iraqi insurgents and recent Syrian threats to destabilize the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Though the meeting didn't produce any breakthroughs, the atmospherics were said to have been better than expected, and there are hopes for further discussions about security issues.

Administration officials are mum about plans for contacts with Iran. But it's clear they are looking for ways to engage the Iranian regime and explore issues of mutual concern, starting with the deteriorating situation in Baghdad.

The hornet's nest at the center of the Middle East is Iraq. On this core issue, the administration is exploring a wide range of options, from changes in basic military strategy to whom to pick as the next Centcom commander. The administration had hoped to persuade Marine Gen. James Jones, the retiring NATO commander, to take the job. He would be a popular choice inside and outside the military, but he is said to be wary.

Israelis are watching the Washington policy debate carefully. There is concern that the administration might try to make Israel the "fall guy" for America's problems with Iraq and Iran. But several of the Israelis who are closest to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert say privately that the current power vacuum in the region hurts Israel most of all and that America must regain the strategic momentum, even if that means talking to its adversaries. Stay tuned to see if Bush opts for a "November surprise."

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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