Thursday, March 16, 2006

As President Bush’s closest advisers enter their fifth year of 16- to 20-hour days, physical and mental exhaustion appears to have produced a dearth of geopolitical thinking.

Mr. Bush still sees translucent light at the end of the Iraqi tunnel he led the coalition into three years ago. Others are afraid this may be the search party looking for survivors — or Iran’s Aladdin lamp showing Shia Iraq how to rub it for a wish back to the dark ages of religious obscurantism.

To sort it all out, Congress has asked veteran bipartisan geopolitical thinkers James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state, and Lee H. Hamilton, former chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and co-chairman of the September 11 Commission, to lead an “Iraq Study Group” of 10 prominent Republicans and Democrats.

With the president’s “war on terror” ratings down to 36 percent, the Iraqi “rethink” group came not a moment too soon. Much bigger threats than civil war in Iraq already loom on horizon 2007. Israel is marking its new frontier with a 420-mile, $2.2 billion barrier that leaves Hamas free to cobble together a state from the patchwork of land left, sans East Jerusalem, which can be neither viable nor contiguous, as pledged by Mr. Bush. Intifada III is now only a matter of time — with rockets and missiles over the wall.

If Pakistan’s next elections were held now instead of 2007, Osama bin Laden’s Urdu-speaking fan club could easily win a majority — and inherit control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Today, they already govern two of Pakistan’s four provinces.

This time round the South Asia track, Mr. Bush inadvertently humiliated his friend Pervez Musharraf, a “major non-NATO ally” since 2004, by extending to rival India, which is not a major non-NATO ally, a sweetheart nuclear deal denied Pakistan. This was a major boost for Mr. Musharraf’s extremist opponents.

The deal, which faces heavy weather in Congress, allows India, which did not sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, to separate its military and civilian nuclear programs and buy U.S. nuclear fuel and technology. The Economist magazine’s cover put a cowboy-clad George Bush riding a nuclear bomb down to earthly destruction, headlined, “George W. Bush in Dr. STRANGEDEAL — or How I learned to stop worrying and love my friend’s bomb.”

The Economist, read by almost half a million movers and shakers the world over, called it a “dangerous gamble” because “in his rush to accommodate India, Mr. Bush is missing a chance to win wider nuclear restraint in one of the world’s tougher neighborhoods.”

It’s hard to see the faintest inkling of restraint in Iran. Its nuclear horse is out of the barn. And it is becoming increasingly clear neither the International Atomic Energy Commission nor the U.N. Security Council can persuade Iran’s Israel-hating President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to give up his new role as the fifth horseman of the apocalypse. He’s the one called Hades that shows no pity or mercy.

The late author Larry Collins’ “5th Horseman” was a nuclear bomb plot in Manhattan circa 1980. What can the U.S. do to thwart fiction becoming reality?

Draconian sanctions voted by the U.N. Security Council are a nonstarter. China, Russia and the European Union have far too much trade at stake. Even if sanctions were possible, Iran has correctly stated, it can dish out as good as it gets.

As long as Iraq is the albatross that sharply restricts military options in Iran, secret high-level diplomacy might be worth exploring. What could the U.S. get in return for a nonaggression treaty with Iran? This could only be plumbed at the level of a secret meeting that stays secret with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei in the holy city of Qom.

The Ayatollah Khamenei says Iran will never retreat from its nuclear ambitions. However, recent emissaries who claim to know his thinking say he wants the wherewithal for rapid production of a nuclear weapon if such a need should arise, but would stop short of acquiring one. Could the U.S. live with that?

The quid pro quo needs triangulating. Would the ayatollah be willing to grease the skids under his firebrand president? If so, in return for what? A free hand in post-U.S. Iraq? What does he seek in Iraq? Breakup of the country or a unitary state? If the latter, on what terms?

The U.S. isn’t too good at secret diplomacy in Iran. Last time round, it was a 1986 scheme to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels from profits gained by selling arms to Iran in return for the release of U.S. hostages held by Hezbollah in Beirut. The architect of the intricate plot was bridge champion Michael Ledeen whose Iranian go-between was Monte Carlo-based arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar (whose normal 10 percent commission suddenly escalated to a 370 percent markup on 1,000 anti-tank TOW missiles).

Then-former NSC Adviser Robert C. McFarlane and NSC aide Col. Oliver North traveled to Tehran in 1986. They brought a cake in the shape of a key, a symbolic opening of U.S.-Iran relations. On a subsequent trip, Col. North offered his Iranian host a bible signed by President Reagan.

The scheme unraveled quickly after a Lebanese magazine exposed the entire arrangement. Trip organizer and Mr. McFarlane’s successor as NSC adviser, Adm. John Poindexter, and Ollie North, who ran the undercover operation, were indicted and convicted of lying to Congress, and later pardoned by Bush 41.

Something subtler, with inbuilt plausible deniability, is now needed to negotiate a geopolitical bargain that would derail a nascent axis of Islamist extremists from Hamas to Baghdad to Tehran to Islamabad (post-Musharraf) to a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. The geopolitical stakes are so much larger than the vain pursuit of the ideal in Iraq.

Besides, Israel is not prepared to sit this one out indefinitely. If diplomacy as usual goes nowhere, Jerusalem will strike the country whose president says he wants to wipe Israel off the map — and the rest of the world will face the mother of all Mideastern crises. Oil at $200 no longer strains credulity.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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