Can Bush resolve Iraq mess?

UNITED STATES

Iraq to grab lion’s share of President’s attention even as Democrats seek to force tougher stance on trade.

MR GEORGE W. Bush enters 2007 in the twilight of his presidency. One issue will consume his administration: Iraq.

What he does – or does not do – in America’s bloody war will have a major impact on domestic politics as well as the foreign policy of the United States.

With Washington still riveted on the Middle East, Asia and other regions of the world will remain on the fringes of superpower attention.

While China will continue to loom large in its strategic calculations, the Bush administration will attempt to downplay problems with Asia’s rising power. A Democrat-controlled Congress might have other ideas though.

With the Democrats having the bully pulpit in Congress, there will certainly be more bluster and populist rhetoric against Beijing’s perceived unfair trade practices that have led to a ballooning deficit for the US.

They will also weaken the already shaky grip of free traders and attempt to block new free-trade agreements – a central plank of the current administration’s policy. One of the first casualties could be Mr Bush’s power to negotiate FTAs without congressional review.

Known as the trade promotion authority, it was granted in 2002 and will end in July next year.

With the winds of protectionism blowing in Congress, ongoing FTA negotiations with several countries – especially those in Asia, such as South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand – could be affected.

Trade will certainly colour political discourse. But it is Iraq and the Middle East that will be at the centre of attention for newly elected lawmakers and a war-weary American electorate.

Battle lines are already being drawn between Congress and the White House. The Democrats, who have openly backed the recommendations of the Baker Hamilton commission, have signalled a bruising battle ahead. They are threatening to mount a campaign looking at oversight of the executive branch, especially on Iraq.

This would spark challenges to the administration, including requests for information, subpoenas for committee appearances as well as frequent constitutional confrontations.

Foreign policy is one area where Mr Bush can seek to redeem himself. As the world’s only superpower, the US remains indispensable, and the President, who has more experience on his side than any of the current G-7 leaders, can leverage on that.

However, unilateralism and hard power might not necessarily achieve Washington’s aims. Iraq is testimony to that, and will prove to be Mr Bush’s toughest test in the international arena.

He has thus far sought to quell expectations of immediate change. In fact, he has not changed his public tone about the stakes involved in the war, the importance of victory or his definition of success in Iraq.

Today, he sounds much as he did in the weeks before the November congressional elections, in which unhappiness with Iraq was a big factor in the Republicans’ loss of Congress.

But 2007 could be the year in which he makes a dramatic U-turn in Iraq policy: giving up his dream of turning Babylon into an oasis of freedom and democracy and beginning a stag ed withdrawal from a country being torn apart by sectarian strife.

There are signs that he will cave in to what might well be the biggest foreign policy correction of his presidency.

The White House, the State Department and the Pentagon are studying the Iraq Study Group’s report closely now. They are likely to recommend something approximate to the report’s proposals that the President will announce in January as the “new way forward” on Iraq.

Administration officials are fanning out in the Middle East as they step up diplomatic efforts to involve Iran, Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia -which have the strongest ties to Shi’ite and Sunni groups – to help piece together the sectarian fragments in Iraq.

Of course, there are reservations to involving Iran and Syria – long-time rivals of the US in the region.

But US defence planners, seeking to contain especially Teheran’s nuclear ambitions, see benefit in roping Iran into a regional roundtable in the next six months which could act as a “cover” to keep track of the country.

Reports here have indicated that the President may call for what are already being dubbed “reciprocal obligations” with Baghdad: trading troop deployments for progress on reducing violence, exactly what the report recommended.

So, expect changes in the year ahead in US policy on Iraq. For a lame-duck President, it will all be about carving out a legacy, even if it requires a volte face in policy.

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