Brace Yourself for 2007

There was a certain end-of-an-era feeling in Washington in the last few weeks of 2006. In the aftermath of the Republican loss of Congress in November, interpreted by most pundits as the American public’s repudiation of President George Bush’s policy in Iraq, the expectation in the U.S. capital was that the city would enter the last stage of the post-9/11 neoconservative revolution.

The scenario outlined by insiders was the following: The Iraq Study Group (ISG) would issue its recommendations to start gradual U.S. disengagement from Mesopotamia. That would provide a political cover for President Bush and Congress to start planning for the withdrawal of some troops for Iraq and for opening a dialogue with Iran and Syria, all of which would help produce a new national consensus at home while encouraging Washington to move in a more multilateral direction abroad.

But as we enter 2007, it’s becoming clear that those earlier expectations were quite inflated. President Bush and his top aides have insisted that the administration will not consider the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. In fact, the White House seems to be in the process of moving in the other direction.

It is apparently going to increase by at least 30,000 the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have also stressed that they are not planning any diplomatic overture to Tehran or Damascus. If anything, there are indications that the U.S. is projecting its military presence in the Persian Gulf to demonstrate to Iran that it "means business."

Indeed, there is growing pressure on the Bush administration to "do something" about Iran’s alleged nuclear military program coming from both Saudi Arabia and the other Arab-Sunni regimes in the region as well as from Israel and its supporters in Washington.

In short, while the Bush administration hasn’t officially rejected the ISG’s recommendations, it is doing exactly that in practical terms, recommitting itself to the hegemonic strategy in the Middle East it has been pursuing since it decided in the aftermath of 9/11 to oust Saddam Hussein from power. As President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have implied in private and public comments, they will not be running for office in 2008 and are therefore under no domestic political pressure to make dramatic changes in their foreign policy.

Mr. Bush knows that his historical legacy will be determined by what happens in Iraq and the Middle East. Notwithstanding his upbeat rhetoric, he has probably concluded that there won’t be any U.S. victory in Iraq in the next two years.

His successor in the White House will then have to continue managing what will probably become a permanent U.S. military commitment in the Persian Gulf. Mr. Bush hopes that 20 or 30 years from now, historians will compare him to President Harry Truman, who was not very popular at home when he led the U.S. into a costly military intervention in Korea in 1950, but who is regarded today as the architect of the successful U.S. Cold War strategy.

More likely, President Bush will feel in the next year or two like President Lyndon Johnson, who faced very strong public and congressional opposition to the growing U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in the mid-1960s.

Not only has he been confronted with a more skeptical, if not hostile press corps, but starting early this year, Congress will be under the control of the opposition party, whose leaders are planning to launch probes and hearings aimed at assessing the administration’s conduct in Iraq.

The combination of a critical media and scolding from Congress is bound to make life even more miserable politically for the White House. It will certainly make it even less likely that the White House and the Democratic Congress will be able to reach agreements on a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues, ranging from the Middle East and international trade to taxes and Social Security.

But the Democrats are constrained in terms of their congressional power to force Mr. Bush, the commander in chief, to make major changes in his Iraq policy. That is certainly the case when one considers that the Democrats themselves are not united over a coherent policy in Iraq. But there is little doubt that the political debate in Washington over Iraq and other issues will become very nasty in 2007, especially as the politicians start preparing for the 2008 presidential and congressional races.

At the same time, unexpected developments relating to the Middle East – Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites, a full-blown civil war in Iraq, a major terrorist attack – could certainly change the balance of power in Washington by either weakening or strengthening Mr. Bush’s position. Whatever happens, one thing is clear: The politicians in Washington and the journalists covering them will be very busy in 2007. That’s what happens when you live in interesting times.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.