Washington waits breathlessly for the report of the Iraq Study Group co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. Meanwhile, the Bush administration sets in motion a diplomatic strategy that will most certainly pre-empt the group's most anticipated recommendation: direct talks with both Iran and Syria.
Why is the White House effectively sabotaging the study group's plans to initiate a regional security dialogue that includes these two "axis of evil" regimes, when all reports indicate they actively fuel the violence in neighboring Iraq? Granted, Iran and Syria can hardly deliver stability in Baghdad, no matter what we offer them, but does anyone doubt they can thwart our own efforts to do the same?
The post-election dismissal of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested Bush the Younger was giving in to the GOP establishment's push to place Bush the Elder's Mr. Fix-It in charge of our Iraq policy, but apparently this isn't the case. Instead, we're watching former Secretary of State James Baker once again squaring off against former Secretary of Defense - and now Vice President - Dick Cheney.
Baker wants America to talk to its enemies in the region, while Cheney's pushing for the same isolate-and-target-for-regime-change strategy on Iran that he previously championed on Saddam Hussein.
Despite its manifest failures, the Bush-Cheney team gives all indications that it still prioritizes Iran's weapons of mass destruction program over our military's efforts in Iraq. Their goal is a broad alliance of the region's Sunni-led governments to contain the rising Shiite alliance of Iran's mullahs, Syria's ruling family and Lebanon's state-within-a-state Hezbollah.
To gain this anti-Iran alliance, however, the Bush administration must ramp up its efforts to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, yet another conflict venue where Tehran possesses a de facto veto. This capability was amply demonstrated recently by Tehran's decision to launch a pre-emptive, asymmetrical war against American interests by having proxies Hezbollah and Hamas trigger Israel's futile invasion of Lebanon.
The Bush administration's single-minded commitment to rerunning the whole WMD drama with Iran is strategically misguided for a variety of reasons.
First, progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict amidst a concerted push to pit Sunni regimes against Shiite ones is highly unlikely. Israel has shown itself quite willing in the past to withstand U.S. pressure for concessions, which would most definitely be required for success.
The more Tel Aviv balks, the more it pushes Sunnis and Shiia into a unified camp, as nothing buries their mutual hatreds faster than the common enemy, the vilified Jews. We saw this in spades during Israel's incursion into Lebanon, as the Sunni regimes' initial anger over Tehran's obvious role quickly yielded to reflexive denunciations of Israel.
Second, the more America isolates and punishes Iran, the more Tehran works to pin us down in Iraq - plain and simple. If, as expected, the Pentagon's ongoing strategic review of Iraq advocates inserting more troops in the near-term, all we'll end up accomplishing is giving Iran more leverage by providing more targets.
In an Iraq that's 60 percent Shiite and where Tehran's influence grows with each passing month, it's hard to see how this constitutes anything approaching an exit strategy.
Third, whatever our success in isolating Iran regionally, we'll never isolate Iran globally, given its huge energy reserves, not when they're desperately needed by a booming Asia whose energy requirements are expected to double over the next two decades.
The Chinese in particular have no choice on the matter. They need energy from anyone who can provide it, and Iran is a top-tier supplier in both oil and natural gas. Sure, Beijing can be counted on for all sorts of declarations and meaningless sanctions, but when push comes to shove, expect China's veto in the United Nations Security Council.
In the end, not only will this Iran-centric strategy fail, it potentially pits a rising East against a tiring West in the Middle East - their Shiia against our Sunnis. I suspect Cheney's hard-line camp would welcome such a strategic stand-off, as the Bush neocons came to power in 2001 with their sights firmly set on containing "rising China."
But consider this: What begins as a global war against a Sunni-derived al-Qaida movement now adds the additional burdens of an anti-Shiite front while setting America up for potentially disastrous confrontation with China.
Where does this end?
I don't know, but Jan. 20, 2009, is looking awfully distant.