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Thursday, October 12, 2006

White House reverts to cold war containment

Financial Times: Lacking a viable military option in dealing with a nuclear North Korea or Iran, the Bush administration is adopting a cold war-style strategy of containment and deterrence that does not completely close the door on negotiated settlements.

While analysts and diplomats in Washington do not rule out the possibility of US military strikes against Iran – some even wager a better than 50 per cent chance by next summer – there is a sense that the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive or preventive war is buried in the wreckage of Iraq.
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There will be tough bargaining at the UN as the Bush administration seeks the legitimacy afforded by Security Council resolutions to press sanctions.

But the success of US strategy in both regions will depend more on developing ad hoc coalitions of allies and overcoming opposition from China and Russia.

Imposition of financial and trade sanctions, freezing of assets, international isolation through travel bans and interceptions of cargo at sea will be accompanied by efforts to strengthen the military capabilities of allies. This means closer military co-operation with the Gulf Arab states and a sympathetic ear to suggestions by Japan's new government that it might rewrite the postwar pacifist constitution.

Interviews with US officials, who asked not to be identified, reveal that the liberation theology that dominated the post-September 11 2001 discourse, notably President George W. Bush's second inaugural speech last year, has given way to a more pragmatic approach.

The shift is so pronounced that both neoconservatives and liberal hawks among Democrats are alarmed that the Bush administration's apparent embrace of realpolitik will mean abandoning promises made to oppressed peoples while entering into nuclear-reduction deals with the Iranian and North Korean regimes.

Beyond the US, more than 100 Arab and Muslim activists have written to Mr Bush calling on him to reaffirm his commitment to sustained democratic reform in the Arab world. They write that autocrats are intensifying their repression, emboldened by the impression that the US is wavering.

Reinforcing such impressions, one US official even suggested the administration would be willing to negotiate trade-offs at the UN in parallel discussions over North Korea, Iran and Sudan. "There are competing interests," he said.

Cliff Kupchan, analyst at the Eurasia Group consultancy, sees the Bush administration groping for an alternative to the "binary choice" of living with a nuclear Iran or staging surgical strikes.

"This administration has not reconciled itself to a nuclear Iran, but it has with North Korea," he says. But he sees any containment strategy – should it exist – complicated by a serious deterioration in the US relationship with Russia.

According to one senior US official, pressure on Iran cannot change the regime, but it might buttress the more pragmatic forces in Tehran who want to negotiate a settlement with the US.

Although the US has moved in the direction of talking to Iran – to the relief of its European allies – it still rejects one-on-one negotiations and insists that the Iranians first suspend their nuclear fuel programme.

Similarly with North Korea, the US is resisting direct talks outside the six-party process that has stalled for nearly a year. Responding to its claim of a nuclear test on Monday, the US is speaking the language of isolation and deterrence.

"Well, I think the North Koreans know that firing a nuclear missile, shall we say, would not be good for North Korean security," Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, stated.

"The North Koreans are not confused about what it would mean to launch a nuclear attack against the United States, one of our allies or somebody in the neighbourhood."

John Hillen, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, is leading the push for a "new security architecture" in the Persian Gulf to counter the perceived threat from Iran. This involves beefed up military co-operation, including big ticket hardware sales, with Arab states in the Gulf Co-operation Council who are enjoying the windfall from higher oil prices.

Not surprisingly, the Arab states that feared both the wrath of the US and the threat of Islamist extremists after September 11 welcome such solicitations.

But Emile El-Hokayem, analyst at the Stimson Center in Washington, says the Arab Gulf states have a predicament. He recalls that Qatar, which hosts a US military base, was the only Security Council member not to vote in favour of the July 31 resolution demanding that Iran stop its uranium enrichment.

He also argues that a containment strategy relying heavily on a build-up of GCC military capabilities could backfire "by validating Iran's security concerns and justifying Tehran's need for a deterrent".

A less adventurist foreign policy would be welcomed by the US public, according to a poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Three out of four Americans feel the US is overdoing the job of global policeman, only 17 per cent rank spreading democracy as an important foreign policy goal, while 61 per cent say the war in Iraq has not reduced the threat of terrorism.

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