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America, MIA in The Gulf

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, December 17, 2006

MANAMA, Bahrain -- No single force or nation can long dominate the fragmenting politics and societies of the Persian Gulf region or the broader Middle East. The Bush administration and the new Democratic majority in Congress must now convert that bittersweet reality into policies that can protect U.S. interests and honor.

No single force -- not U.S. or Israeli military power, Iranian revolutionary zeal, reactionary Saudi oil wealth, U.N. moralistic preaching or Sunni extremism sponsored by Jordan, Egypt and other Arab states -- can impose itself durably on a region caught in the morbid interim between the dying of an exhausted political and social order and the birth of a still-unknown way of life.

This is an inescapable conclusion after nearly four years of a bungled U.S. occupation of Iraq conducted in the name of entrenching democracy in the region. It is borne out as well in four decades of destructive Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, in the rising unpopularity at home of Iran's megalomaniacal rulers as their capacity to meddle grows, and in the inability of Saudi Arabia's ruling family to agree on or implement the strategy the monarchy should pursue for survival.

This does not mean that the United States is helpless or should turn away in despair from a region accustomed to burying outsiders and their "initiatives" in its shifting sands. It does mean that U.S. efforts must be nimble, often asymmetrical and not focused only on immediate, binary problems.

There was, alas, no sign of such a U.S. approach at a high-level gathering of Arab princes and policymakers, Iranian revolutionaries and senior officials from Europe and Asia in this Gulf kingdom last weekend. The two-day conference served instead to underline the shallowness of much of the current U.S. debate, both inside and outside an administration that argues endlessly over incremental deployments of 10,000 troops more or less, tactics for pulling Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki away from radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr or how much to solicit Russia to support symbolic sanctions against Iran.

The growing importance and presence of other international actors in this politically traumatized region dominated this conference, which was sponsored by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Arab delegates here spent much time discussing the speech given by Sun Bigan, China's special envoy to the Middle East. More precisely, they discussed the flawless Arabic in which Sun delivered a lengthy if anodyne expression of China's wishes for "a harmonious Gulf." He spoke after Yuriko Koike, Japan's national security adviser -- who noted in her introductory remarks in Arabic that she was a graduate of Cairo University. A third speaker who emphasized Asia's long-term interests in the region and its energy resources was M.K. Narayanan, India's national security adviser.

The delegates could not discuss remarks given by a high-level Bush administration official. None attended, despite repeated promises in the summer and autumn of Cabinet-level representation. The turmoil in Washington over Iraq policy -- more accurately, over the lack of a convincing Iraq policy -- was left to speak for itself.

This was a meeting at which America was absent, Iran was ascendant and Arab states were apprehensive. One conference scene may have captured the dominant mood of the entire Gulf:

At one official reception, Arab officials were bitterly complaining among themselves that the United States was not doing enough to counter advances by Iranian proxies in Iraq, elsewhere in the Gulf and in Lebanon. They quickly broke off this discussion to hurry to greet, in accommodating fashion, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki as he entered the room.

American staying power, on the other hand, is increasingly questioned. The Iraq Study Group report was taken by many delegates here as a sign of U.S. fecklessness -- as a disguised scenario for a U.S. withdrawal that can be blamed on Maliki.

This in turn leads to mutterings by Saudi princes and other Sunni rulers that the Arabs must now openly back the Sunnis in Iraq in waging subversion and war, whatever Bush says about national unity. The Saudis must consider developing their own nuclear programs to confront an emboldened Iran, in this view.

A confident Mottaki portrayed Iran as on the march and the United States as defeated in the Gulf. "The day of unilateralism is over," he brayed.

But America's own bitter experiences should temper any temptation by Bush to overreact to Iranian chutzpah, Saudi anxiety or Iraqi incompetence. The United States needs to display strategic patience and make broad policy adjustments that will take advantage of the next inevitable turn of the wheel of power in the Gulf.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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