Washington American strategy in the greater Middle East is at a turning point. The hesitant, at times contradictory, efforts by President Bush and his aides to calm the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have produced nothing of substance. The administration must now pursue other methods of preventing the region from becoming a chaotic platform for greater global terrorism.
That means more reliance on U.S. military might to support diplomacy. Events pull Bush toward a strategy of transforming the region by establishing a greatly expanded and intrusive U.S. military presence there. American forces would stay for years to help develop and shield new and democratic leaderships in Iraq and in a Palestinian state.
This could become a vast and risky enterprise on the scale of American commitments to Europe during the Cold War. No president would undertake it lightly, or even voluntarily especially not a president who came to office with few fixed ideas about foreign policy or the Middle East. The vision is not Bush's first choice. It is his last resort.
But the failure of the Saudi peace plan, of Israeli military strikes and of Colin Powell's diplomacy to stabilize the Middle East after nearly two years of turmoil deprives Bush of options. He has prudently let those and other alternatives run their course. He must respond to their evident exhaustion with new and determined leadership.
Otherwise, Bush risks letting events make strategy for him through incremental adjustments that do not add up to a coherent commitment to success. Vietnam illustrates the grave dangers of making policy by piecemeal commitments, which leave the initiative to the enemy.
The United States and its NATO partners would invite that risk by an isolated deployment of Western troops as a buffer force between the Israelis and Palestinians. Hamas, al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein would all welcome the opportunity to set up a shooting gallery with American soldiers as sitting ducks.
This is no time to think small. American troops can be effective and secure on the West Bank only as part of a much larger force committed to the region on a twofold mission: to fight the sources and supporters of global terrorism, and to advance the interlocking causes of democracy in the Arab world and the survival of Israel. That is the price of admission admittedly a steep one for committing U.S. forces into the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Conventional thinkers argue the opposite case: The Palestinian problem must be appeased and al-Qaida totally eliminated before the United States acts to remove Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and its murderous leadership. Saddam Hussein seems to agree, stirring the Palestinian pot of terror to prevent Washington from focusing on him.
But the enduring Israeli-Palestinian stalemate which was reflected by the paucity of specifics in Bush's Middle East policy speech last week pushes the White House toward turning such conventional wisdom on its head. The greater the polarization between Israelis and Palestinians, the more likely a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Straws in the wind suggest a growing acceptance at the White House of the need for an overwhelming U.S. invasion force that will remain on the ground in Iraq for several years. The U.S. presence will serve as the lynchpin for democratic transformation of a major Arab country that can be a model for the region. A new Iraq would also help provide greater energy security for Americans.
The international environment has also changed significantly in recent months. The open opposition voiced in the past by Russia and France to U.S. action against Saddam Hussein has turned into a muted acquiescence of U.S. plans. Behind the scenes, Russian and French business interests have secretly opened contacts with an Iraqi opposition that they have concluded may soon come to power.
The wind has shifted in the region as well. Iran welcomed Ahmed Chalabi, Saddam's most visible and dedicated opponent in exile, for political discussions in Tehran earlier this month. Turkey has privately told Washington it will support U.S. action against Baghdad. U.S. officials will soon begin discussions with Israel on the implications for the Jewish state of a U.S. campaign against Iraq.
When Bill Clinton ordered contingency plans drawn up for invading Iraq, it was widely understood that he would never do it. But foreign leaders and even the U.S. bureaucracy have concluded that Bush means what he says about regime change in Baghdad, and are adjusting their policies. Bush's bold vision on Iraq is the right starting point for a coherent Middle East strategy that cannot be built on the increments and contradictions so dear to conventional wisdom.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.