More on the need for a new strategy for the Middle East

Paul Richter of the LATimes has a provocative story today, one that echoes many of my posts these last few weeks (here's one, and another):

Mideast allies near a state of panic -
U.S. leaders' visits to the region reap only warnings and worry.

WASHINGTON — President Bush and his top advisors fanned out across the troubled Middle East over the last week to showcase their diplomatic initiatives to restore strained relationships with traditional allies and forge new ones with leaders in Iraq.
But instead of flaunting stronger ties and steadfast American influence, the president's journey found friends both old and new near a state of panic. Mideast leaders expressed soaring concern over upheavals across the region that the United States helped ignite through its invasion of Iraq and push for democracy — and fear that the Bush administration may make things worse.

President Bush's summit in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister proved an awkward encounter that deepened doubts about the relationship. Vice President Dick Cheney's stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, yielded a blunt warning from the kingdom's leaders. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's swing through the West Bank and Israel, intended to build Arab support by showing a new U.S. push for peace, found little to work with.

In all, visits designed to show the American team in charge ended instead in diplomatic embarrassment and disappointment, with U.S. leaders rebuked and lectured by Arab counterparts. The trips demonstrated that U.S. allies in the region were struggling to understand what to make of the difficult relationship, and to figure whether, with a new Democratic majority taking over Congress, Bush even had control over his nation's Mideast policy.

Arabs are "trying to figure out what the Americans are going to do, and trying develop their own plans," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), one of his party's point men on Iraq. "They're trying to figure out their Plan B."

The allies' predicament was described by Jordan's King Abdullah II last week, before Bush arrived in Amman, the capital. Abdullah, one of America's steadiest friends in the region, warned that the Mideast faced the threat of three simultaneous civil wars — in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. And he made clear that the burden of dealing with it rested largely with the United States.

"Something dramatic" needed to come out of Bush's meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to defuse the three-way threat, Abdullah said, because "I don't think we're in a position where we can come back and visit the problem in early 2007."

and this:

"Cheney's trip to talk to Saudi King Abdullah was far less visible than Bush's mission, but helped to make painfully clear the gap between U.S. goals and those of its Arab allies.

U.S. officials said Cheney initiated the trip. But foreign diplomats said that Saudi leaders sought the visit to express their concern about the region, including fears of a U.S. departure and what they see as excessive American support for the Shiite faction in Iraq.

After the meeting with Cheney, Saudi officials released an unusual statement pointedly highlighting American responsibility for deterioration of stability in the region.

The Saudi officials cited "the direct influence of … the United States on the issues of the region" and said it was important for U.S. influence "to be in accord with the region's actual condition and its historical equilibrium," an apparent reference to the Sunni-Shiite balance.

The Saudi statement also said the U.S. in the Middle East should "pursue equitable means that contribute to ending its conflicts," pointing to the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The statement "came pretty close to a rebuke, by Saudi standards," said Charles W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "It said, in effect, that the United States needs to behave responsibly."

There have been other signals of Saudi anxiety recently.

On Wednesday, an advisor to the Saudi government wrote in the Washington Post that if the United States pulled out of Iraq, "massive Saudi intervention" would ensue to protect Sunnis from Shiite militias.

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al Faisal, warned in a speech in October against an American withdrawal, saying that "since the United States came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited."

Here is a link to the remarkable op-ed by a Saudi advisor that threatened an Iraqi-Saudi war if conditions for Sunni Arabs in Iraq continued to deteriorate.

Given the growing instability of the Middle East, it is essential that the political leadership of both parties start to talk about a long-term plan to bring stability back to the region. We need less talk about pullback and withdrawals, however important that is, and more about a comprehensive strategy to prevent the Middle East from descending into dramatic regional chaos. Our troops should be used as part of a broader strategy to bring stability back to the Middle East. Pulling them out without this broader strategy simply doesn't seem like a smart thing to do.

I worry that the Iraq Study Group will have missed an important opportunity to help transition our understanding of what's at stake in the Middle East. Perhaps we will all be impressed with their work. But so far what one can see from the leaks is not very promising.