Bush plans week of high-stakes diplomacy seeking calm in Afghanistan, Iraq
Monday, November 27, 2006
WASHINGTON -- President Bush reaches out to allies this week for help in quelling violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, in a burst of diplomacy from a Baltic summit of NATO partners to Mideast talks with Iraq's prime minister.
Just back from an eight-day trip to Asia, Bush was leaving today on another overseas trip as pressure builds at home for a change in his administration's Iraq strategy amid deepening tensions and violence in that country.
The president stops first in Estonia en route to a NATO summit in neighboring Latvia where a debate over peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan is expected to dominate.
Estonia and Latvia have sent troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. considers the two former Soviet republics important allies.
From Latvia, the president heads to Amman, Jordan, for two days of talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Jordan was deemed a less dangerous setting for the meeting than Baghdad.
White House aides said the meeting, a late addition to Bush's itinerary, was part of the president's process of sounding out various parties as he ponders how to proceed in Iraq.
Iran and Syria are trying to assert influence in stabilizing Iraq without American involvement, and tensions in the region increased further last week with the assassination of a Cabinet member in the U.S.-backed democratic government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora -- a killing some have blamed on Syria. Also, sectarian attacks in Iraq have surged in recent days.
Jordan's King Abdullah said Sunday that tensions in the Middle East go beyond the war in Iraq and that much of the region soon could become engulfed in violence unless the central issues are addressed quickly.
"We could possibly imagine going into 2007 and having three civil wars on our hands," he said on ABC's "This Week," citing conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon and the decades-long strife between the Palestinians and Israelis.
At the NATO gathering Tuesday and Wednesday in Riga, Latvia, Bush will press for a heavier financial and military commitment from many of the alliance's 26 members and urge an easing of restrictions by individual countries on what their troops can and cannot do, according to administration officials.
The president also will call for inviting major non-NATO members Australia, Japan and South Korea to play a larger role in the alliance's activities.
Widespread public dismay over the war in Iraq helped sweep control of Congress away from Bush's Republicans this month and put Democrats in power. Democrats and some Republicans want Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
Violence also has flared in Afghanistan as a result of a resurgent Taliban and difficulties by the central government to maintain control, especially in the turbulent south.
The NATO summit will focus heavily on Afghanistan "because NATO is now in charge of security throughout the country" and because the alliance has recently been challenged by the Taliban, said Judy Ansley, director of European affairs at the White House National Security Council.
"The main thing now is to make sure that the alliance remains committed to this mission, which is important not only to Afghanistan but to our security in the West," she said.
Retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said that "events in Afghanistan are reaching a critical juncture, and European politics and perceptions, as well as U.S. commitments in Iraq may prevent NATO from getting the assets necessary to ensure victory."
"A military failure in Afghanistan would be catastrophic for the alliance," Ralston said.
There are currently just over 30,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Bush's meeting with the Iraqi prime minister will be the first time the two have met since al-Maliki's visit to Washington in late July. They also met during Bush's unannounced visit to Baghdad in June.
Conditions have deteriorated since those meetings, and Bush is pondering whether to decrease or increase the 140,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. The president is awaiting recommendations from a top-to-bottom Pentagon review and from a blue-ribbon bipartisan study group headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana.
The assassination in Lebanon last week will make it even harder for Bush to solicit the help of Syria and Iran in stabilizing Iraq, as many political figures in the U.S. and abroad have recommended.
The Bush-al-Maliki meeting was widely seen as an attempt by Bush to signal that the U.S. still was engaged in an effort to find a solution to the spiraling violence in Iraq after more than three years and eight months -- longer than the U.S. involvement in World War II, as of Sunday.
"Sometimes, in the Middle East, you do diplomacy just to keep things from getting worse," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.
Bush decided to go ahead with the meeting despite the opposition of some prominent Shiites in Iraq. Ahead of Bush's visit, Vice President Dick Cheney went to Saudi Arabia over the weekend in hopes of enlisting that government's help in involving more Arab countries in a regional solution.
The president was under pressure at home both from Democrats and some Republicans to take a new direction in Iraq.
"Changes are going to have to occur," Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the incoming No. 2 GOP leader in the Senate, told "Fox News Sunday."