Friday, November 03, 2006

November surprise? Bush -- the decider -- will have to decide

The Baker-Hamilton Commission is keeping its recommendations about policy in Iraq from public view until after the election. This is extremely unfortunate because it denies the American people information on which to debate prior to midterm elections and to make informed choices at the polls.

Be that as it may, the rumors and leaks as well as the general approach to foreign policy by both former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton point to recommendations that focuses on stabilization of the region through engagement with Iraq’s neighbors and possibly encourage concessions from Israel to attempt to ratchet down the larger Middle East conflict.

This, of course, runs contrary to the position of the Cheney-Rumsfeld Axis that talking with Syria and Iran is off limits and the U.S. should support Israel’s most hard line positions without question. All of these positions described above are simplified but capture the general thrust of the conflict between foreign policy advisors. The President will have to make a choice.

David Ignatius explains it this way in today’s Washington Post:

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.

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."

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