The Egyptian president allegedly said during the Sharm al-Sheikh conference on Iraq that if it did not serve Iraq, it would at least benefit tourism in Egypt! This was before the conference was held, when Tehran was still hesitant over whether to participate or not and Riyadh could not find time to receive Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and while the scheduled meeting between US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem maintained its status as practically the only point of attraction. In contrast to this gray backdrop, the conference basked in a show of opulence and attention. Over 50 countries were invited, first and foremost, UN Security Council permanent member states and representatives of the G8 countries, in addition to neighboring countries. It was opened by the UN Secretary General. The conference ratified a comprehensive closing statement, the draft of which was prepared by representatives of the foreign ministries who tried to use wording that did not irk anyone. This is how the demand for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops, which was a major point of dispute, became formulated like that: “the foreign forces would not remain in Iraq for an indefinite period of time.” Also, the subject of federalism, which was also a major point of dispute, was lost in the midst of a sentence that reaffirmed the unity and sovereignty of Iraq. Each party was left to understand or interpret it as they wished.
This modesty in expectations and goals does not mean the conference was a mere superficial event. Rather, we must review its functions in locations where battles are going on, which are many. Besides the opportunity Sharm al-Sheikh provided for sideline meetings between parties that need to smooth out a number of issues, it is being held at a time when the US President is faced with the launching of his political adversaries’ strategy aimed at condemning and foiling his policies in Iraq. At the beginning of the week, President Bush vetoed a project drafted by Congress, which linked the ratification of the budget of US forces in Iraq with a commitment to a timetable for withdrawal, which would start next October.
Congress will begin a new discussion over the draft, which it will reword and present again to the President within 15 days. If the scenario is repeated, the military command of the forces will be obliged to start a series of meetings to decrease expenditures. This will undoubtedly raise the intensity of the crisis surrounding the US President and those few loyalists left around him. That is, we have begun to watch a sort of miniseries. Even though the context is as expected and lacks any exciting episodes, television screens brought us the events moment by moment. We saw the black car carrying the draft of the document, knocking on the door of the White House at the same time the President’s helicopter was returning from Tampa, Florida where the headquarters for Iraq and Afghanistan’s military operations command is located. Then, less than half an hour later, we saw the president making a statement in which he insisted on his rejection of any announcement of a specific withdrawal date, adding that such a formula would be a “prescription for chaos and confusion.”
It seems the Democrats’ plan to close in on President Bush is airtight, based on their investment in the growing public discontent over the failure of his plan in Iraq to be viewed as a national savior. That is, they would not sacrifice the lives of the soldiers through rejecting every budget, which is something the public would not accept. This would, in the least, be perceived as “unpatriotic.” The Democrats are stressing that the real way to get out from the Iraqi trap is not to blindly refuse to withdraw. The Democrats’ plan is concentrated on exclusively attacking the restricted team around the president, thus giving an open opportunity for the dissenting voices coming out of the Republican Party regarding the President and hence joining in this national salvation plan. The Democrats thus have moved away from banal narrow factionalism, which if practiced, would have unified the Republicans in an instinctive reaction to protect their own heads.
In this context, any positive sign showing the American Administration capable of controlling the Iraqi file will nullify the pretext of a sustainable disaster caused by the occupation. Hence, for the Sharm al-Sheikh conference to produce, even superficially, any functional outcomes inside the United States is part of the US President’s battle to halt the deterioration of his popularity and the growing split within his party amid the advancement of the Democrats. The latest opinion polls—which seem to be a kind of national sport in the US—have indicated that 40 percent of the Republicans believe the next president will be a Democrat. There have also been voices from congressmen, some Republicans, talking about putting a mechanism into action for the impeachment of the President. This will most likely not happen, but it is an indication of the components of the current battle.
Of course, the most important battle is the one taking place on Iraqi soil and in the Middle East in general. Here, the American administration is wagering on the success of the so-called “security plan” which is based on decreasing the level of unbridled violence and the launching of the so-called comprehensive political, economic and administrative reform plan. One of the most important pillars of this plan is “national reconciliation,” meaning to include all the social representations in the political process, which has become known, in short, as the Sunni representation, including reopening the doors to Baathists, even known ones, to take over responsibilities in the government and the military. There are, of course, other articles of success from an American viewpoint, first and foremost, passing the fuel and gas law, which would completely eliminate the stage of nationalizing this national wealth and reinstating the control of international oil companies, namely American, over drilling and marketing.
However, the American administration is now facing a stage of dramatic contradictions, which it created for itself. Although what may satisfy some Iraqi parties now and reassure neighboring countries and regional parties, will provoke other internal parties and other neighboring countries. This means the already restricted balancing game, which American policy in Iraq was created on, is even narrower now because of the context the Iraqi question has fallen into since the occupation began, where the theory of “the democracy component” was elaborated to justify the confessional or communitarian nature of political action and of the construction of authority. Furthermore, this balancing game is suffocating because of the rising tension between Washington and Tehran.
Hence, the American presence in Iraq is constantly caught in the crossfire. How could the Sharm al-Sheikh conference camouflage that?
This article was originally published in Arabic in al-Hayat, and translated into English by the Alternative Information Center (AIC) by request of the author.