U.S. Pares Other Diplomacy to Focus on Iraq, Rest of Mideast

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

President Bush and his top Cabinet secretaries are scaling back their personal diplomacy around the world to focus more intently on Iraq and the rest of the Middle East as the administration concentrates its energy on top priorities for the president's last 18 months in office.

In the past two weeks, Bush canceled a summit with Southeast Asian leaders in Singapore, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scrapped a trip to Africa and decided to skip a meeting in the Philippines, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates put off a swing through Latin America. The domestic debate over Iraq, which may culminate with a September progress report on the war, has made such travel untenable at the moment, officials said.

The decisions underscore how much Iraq and the turmoil in the Middle East have come to consume Bush's presidency and threaten his ability to forge a lasting legacy. The canceled trips have fueled discontent in regions that have long felt snubbed by Bush, and U.S. diplomats and scholars warn of lasting damage. But as Bush's tenure wanes and Americans' patience with the Iraq war runs short, many specialists in Washington are saying the president must put aside secondary objectives.

"An almost-exclusive concentration on Iraq is almost overdue," said James Dobbins, a longtime diplomat who served as Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan and now is a national security analyst at the Rand Corp. "We can't possibly stabilize Iraq unless we decide it's the most important thing we're doing."

Carlos Pascual, former director of reconstruction and stabilization in Bush's State Department, said failure in Iraq would be so devastating to U.S. standing that devoting more energy there is worth temporarily neglecting other regions.

"They have no choice," said Pascual, now vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. "They either surrender this to the fates to be and see how it plays out, or they put all hands on deck and say, 'We're going to make a strategic effort to get this under control.' "

Still, other specialists said the administration's shifting attention demonstrates the debilitating costs that the Iraq war has already imposed on the capacity of the United States to manage its role as the world's lone superpower. While the Bush team has waged war in Iraq, China has expanded its global influence, Russia has been reborn as an increasingly authoritarian and antagonistic power, and anti-Americanism has spread in Latin America.

"There have been substantial public diplomacy resources that have been diverted to Iraq and, I would assume as well, personnel," said Peter DeShazo, former deputy assistant secretary of state under Bush and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Maintaining relations, he said, requires constant diplomatic investment. "You stop making these investments for a period of time, and the effect may not be immediate, but eventually it will be felt."

The string of canceled high-level trips has drawn peeved reviews in different regions. Bush decided not to stop in Singapore for a summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in September, although he will attend the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Australia.

The offense to ASEAN leaders was compounded by Rice's decision not to attend a meeting of its foreign ministers in Manila next month, the second time she has skipped it in three years. The Nation, a Thai newspaper, editorialized about Bush's "audacity" in backing out of the meeting, saying it caused "huge disappointment in most ASEAN capitals."

Surin Pitsuwan, a former Thai foreign minister who is likely to become ASEAN secretary general, said Bush's cancellation "sends a wrong signal to the region," the Reuters news agency reported. "We are getting an indication that we are being marginalized."

Still, other regional leaders expressed understanding. "The U.S. now has a central task, and that is to make sure the situation in the Middle East doesn't get out of control," Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo told Channel NewsAsia, noting that Rice called to explain. "They cannot afford to pull out of Iraq in a chaotic way, and Congress is in a fretful mood, so it is absolutely important that she concentrates on that issue."

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