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Foreign Hot Spots Holding America's Feet to the Fire

June 16, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's three boldest foreign policy interventions -- Afghanistan, Iraq and now the Arab-Israeli conflict -- are all losing critical momentum and the U.S. ability to control events may slip away unless bolder action is taken, according to experts, current and former U.S. officials and two new reports.

Hanging in the balance, they warn, are America's credibility abroad and the direction of the Islamic world -- moving toward moderation or deeper extremism.

"We were overconfident that American power could somehow intimidate or inhibit the local sources of power and violence. But those power centers -- Hamas, Afghan warlords and anti-American forces in Iraq, be they Saddam Hussein loyalists or others -- are proving resilient and extremely powerful," said Ellen Laipson, former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council and now president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a foreign policy think tank in Washington. "And they're all proving to be significant and stubborn challenges for the United States."

Two weeks after President Bush's summits with Israeli and Mideast leaders produced pledges on a new "road map" to peace, the Arab-Israeli conflict is instead escalating. The militant Palestinian group Hamas is now threatening to target all Israeli civilians, while Israel is pledging a "war to the bitter end" against the militants.

Differences between Israel and the Palestinian Authority about how to pursue peace have now been eclipsed by extremist groups, and so far, military clampdowns have only fueled support for them.

"Control of events seems to be slipping away," said Robert Malley, a former National Security Council staff member in the Clinton administration who is now Mideast program director at the International Crisis Group, a conflict watchdog organization. "The history of U.S. initiatives has often been too little, too late -- whether the Mitchell plan, the Tenet plan and perhaps now the road map. These are initiatives whose shelf life had expired by the time they were put on the table."

In Iraq, the war may be over, but the country remains a dangerous combat zone. The political transition has proved messier than anticipated and reconstruction more complex and costly.

"American forces are in a race against the clock. If they are unable to restore both personal security and public services and establish a better rapport with Iraqis before the blistering heat of summer sets in, there is a genuine risk that serious trouble will break out," the International Crisis Group concluded in a report issued last week.

And Afghanistan, where Bush launched military action to root out Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is the most precarious arena. Despite vehement American pledges not to abandon Afghanistan again, as the U.S. did a decade earlier, the nation is again in trouble.

The Western-backed interim government -- now halfway into its two-year term to stabilize the country, write a new constitution and transform political and economic life -- essentially controls only the capital. An estimated 100,000 Afghans in various militias hold sway in much of the country. The economy is still in tatters.

"Without greater support for the transitional government of President Hamid Karzai, security in Afghanistan will deteriorate further, prospects for economic reconstruction will dim and Afghanistan will revert to warlord-dominated anarchy," concludes a report by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society to be released this week. "This failure could gravely erode America's credibility around the globe and mark a major defeat in the U.S. war on terrorism."

Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden and Taliban leaders remain elusive. And Al Qaeda operatives continue to mount terrorist strikes.

U.S. officials say that much has been achieved in Afghanistan, Iraq and on the Israeli- Palestinian front. All three are long-term challenges that will eventually turn around -- and the alternative of doing nothing would have been much worse, they add.

"People have often been in too great a rush to judgment, drawing grand conclusions from one event or one day's developments," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst who is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University.

Even critics of the administration agree that it defied dire predictions with almost breathtaking military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the new Middle East road map sets the most specific goals and deadlines -- and has the widest world and regional backing -- of any effort in a decade, they say.

Yet there is a growing sense of unease among foreign policy experts as well as some U.S. officials that the problems in each area will increase America's vulnerability rather than diminish it.

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