Published: December 3 2004
Ask around in Washington about the foreign policy issues which will shape George W. Bush's second term and the answers are the Middle East, the Middle East and the Middle East. Many put a fourth pin into a map of North Korea. Everyone starts with Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran. Yet owning up to the inevitable is one thing. The question left hanging is whether the administration has policies to match the challenges.
In Iraq, the US is largely a prisoner of past mistakes. The war's harshest critics struggle to come up with the strategic masterstroke which might set Mr Bush free. Instead, Washington's hopes must rest on containing the insurgency, pressing ahead with elections, building up the local security forces and, crucially, pulling out as soon as Iraq can govern itself. This is a country where the only remaining choices are about lesser evils.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and relations with Iran are places where Mr Bush has a chance to start again. On both counts, the administration has thus far had much to say and little that resembles a coherent strategy. Events are already overtaking it.
Visiting Washington after Mr Bush's re-election, I wondered how the administration would respond if the Palestinians chose the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti as the successor to Yassir Arafat. The president had said his pre-eminent condition for a resumption of US engagement in the region was that the new Palestinian leader should have democratic legitimacy. But what if the Palestinians voted for someone who was serving several life sentences in an Israeli jail for alleged terrorist offences?
There was no real answer. Everyone preferred to assume that Mahmoud Abbas, a former prime minister with a reputation as a pragmatist, would get the job. My sense was that the administration did not want to think through any other possibilities. It was enough that Mr Bush, albeit with some prodding from Britain's Tony Blair, had declared himself ready to relaunch the peace process.
The president's pledge to invest his second-term capital in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table seems genuine enough. One or two shrewd Washington observers speculate that the deeply religious Mr Bush saw Mr Arafat's death, coming so soon after his own re-election, as providential. That placed a duty on him to deploy US power behind the cause for peace.
More prosaically, Mr Bush seems to have come to appreciate the terrible damage that disengagement has done to America's standing across the region. Grand strategies to bring democratic change to the Arab world are worse than meaningless against the backdrop of unchecked violence in Palestine. As I have heard one European prime minister describe it, the president has at last begun to set the fight against Islamist terrorism in the broader political landscape.
But a commitment to engage is not of itself a strategy. One of the reasons Mr Blair has pressed the president to look beyond the Palestinian election is a concern that the process must be robust enough to shrug off the inevitable setbacks. Put bluntly, Mr Blair wants a framework that will survive the next Palestinian suicide bomber. The idea is that everyone - and everyone in this context really means Mr Bush - is locked into a long-term commitment.
Hence the British prime minister's proposal for a high-level international meeting to bring all the parties together as soon as the Palestinians have a new leader, and his suggestion that Mr Bush appoint a special Middle East envoy. Beyond that, Mr Blair wants a timetable to reconnect an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza with the shelved road map for a comprehensive settlement. Under the provisional British timetable, final status talks would start in 2006.
The president has thus far been non-committal. His preference is to wait until Condoleezza Rice takes over as secretary of state in place of Colin Powell. Her likely stance is something of a puzzle. On the one hand her known views suggest a significantly tougher stance towards the Palestinians than that of Mr Powell. On the other, Ms Rice is her master's servant. If Mr Bush wants a different approach, she will do his bidding.
Mr Barghouti's decision to stand for the Palestinian leadership could yet turn out to be a tactical manoeuvre. But it has overturned Mr Bush's assumption of a smooth transition to Mr Abbas by unsettling the Fatah movement. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon's Israeli government has been thrown into new turmoil by the resignation of one of his coalition partners. That's the trouble with democracy - it is unpredictable.
Many in Washington think that the Palestinians will at some point need a leader with Mr Barghouti's credibility to make the compromises essential in any peace settlement. But not quite yet. Mr Bush has yet to face up to the possibility that he could be confronted with a Palestinian leader locked in an Israeli jail.
The administration's approach to Iran betrays the same gap between rhetoric and worked-out policy. Mr Bush has told European leaders that he appreciates the work they have done to secure a moratorium in Tehran's nuclear reprocessing activities. But he has also warned that he does not see it as a solution to the long-term threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions. Thus far Americans and Europeans can agree. But behind Mr Bush's oft-repeated determination that Iran must not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons lies a vacuum.
US engagement with Tehran is all but ruled out. Administration officials have scoffed at the idea of a "grand bargain" with the ayatollahs. Instead, Washington insists that any further suspicions of Iranian cheating on its international commitments must lead to its immediate referral to the United Nations Security Council.
But what then? Without proof, there would be neither the legal basis nor the political consensus for sanctions. Air strikes? I heard it discussed often enough in Washington, and by the American representatives at a recent high-level conference hosted by Italy's Aspen Institute in Rome, not to underestimate the possibility of military action. Europeans should not dismiss out of hand the idea of the US, or for that matter the Israelis, attacking Iran's nuclear sites. Some close to the administration will tell you targets have already been selected. But what, you ask, of the chaos that would follow? Silence again.