U.S. to salvage stand with new tactics

By Sylvie Lanteaume BAGHDAD, AFP

Four years of devastating war in Iraq has left America’s global standing in tatters, and President George W. Bush is trying a softer approach to his remaining arch enemies — North Korea, Syria and Iran.

The March 2003 invasion by a U.S. dominated coalition was designed to topple Saddam Hussein and create an island of pro-American democracy in an Arab world seen as the fount of global terrorism that led to September 11, 2001.

But the war seems to have strengthened not only the Al-Qaida network behind those atrocities but also boosted the influence of Iran and its allies — Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas, all sworn enemies of the United States.

“The new Iraq was supposed to be a model for the Middle East and a threat to Iran’s theocracy. Instead, Iran has emerged as the biggest winner of the United States’ war,” Vali Nasr, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the latest edition of the think tank’s journal, Foreign Policy.

Multiple U.S. tactical and strategic shifts have proven largely ineffective in ending the carnage that has killed around 3,200 American troops and other personnel and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

At the same time, Washington’s moral authority has been sapped by revelations about secret CIA prisons in some 20 countries used to interrogate “high value” terror suspects.

“The fact is (Bush) squandered our credibility, our legitimacy and even respect for our power, and that is a rather serious indictment,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under former president Jimmy Carter.

Bush’s handling of the war also cost his Republican Party its control over Congress and sent his own popularity ratings plunging to the point where barely one in three Americans feel he is doing a good job.

The setbacks were accompanied by widening criticism of Bush’s unilateralist foreign policy, a message that seems to be getting through.

In the wake of November’s congressional election shock, Bush sacked his hardline defense secretary and Iraq war architect, Donald Rumsfeld, and authorized Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to try some diplomatic repairs.

These involved a new U.S. initiative to revive neglected Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

It also included tentative steps towards engagement with North Korea, Iran and Syria — taboo diplomacy when Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney held unchallenged sway over U.S. policy.

Just last month, North Korea agreed to shut down key nuclear facilities in exchange for badly needed fuel, part of a broad international agreement aimed at ending the regime’s controversial nuclear program.

The deal included a U.S. commitment to hold direct talks on diplomatic relations with North Korea and to study removing it from its list of terrorist nations.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines of a March 10 conference on peace in Iraq, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad held what he described as “constructive and businesslike” talks with Iranian officials.

And a senior State Department official traveled to Damascus this past week for the highest-level visit in two years as Washington pressed the limited opening to Syria begun at the Iraq conference.

Iran is not the only country to have profited from Washington’s woes in Iraq, foreign policy experts say.

As Washington focussed above all on the war, China has spent the past four years spreading its influence and economic reach, including across Africa and into Latin America.

At the same time, Arab allies, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, gained a respite from early Bush administration efforts to press them on human rights issues — now deemed less important than gaining their support against Iran.

Ariel Cohen, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says Russia has also benefited from the Iraq war to make a comeback in the Middle East, where it has gained leverage due to its close ties to Tehran and been able to build new bridges with wealthy Gulf monarchies.

“Clearly, the new Middle East — in which U.S. power and prestige are threatened in Iraq and where Moscow is challenging America’s superpower status — will be a more competitive and challenging environment,” Cohen said.