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As Bush's Neoceonservative Approach Crumbles, Allies Step Into the Breach

As the White House agenda for the Middle East continues to unravel, events over the past 24 hours seem to suggest that U.S. allies in the region are determined to construct a new edifice based on diplomacy, with or without Washington's help.

In spite of the President George W. Bush administration's efforts to isolate and defeat "terrorists and radicals" -- as Bush himself put it in a controversial speech to the Israeli Knesset last week -- U.S.-backed local actors are engaging precisely with those "forces of evil".

Indeed, engagement -- known as "appeasement" in the neo-conservative lexicon -- is bursting out all over the Middle East; in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Iraq, and between two nations that have existed in a state of "no war, no peace" for more than 40 years -- Israel and Syria.

For the first time since President Bush took office, some of the pieces for peace may finally be falling into place.

"It's not the case that anti-U.S. forces are 'taking over' the Middle East," according to Helena Cobban, a Middle East analyst at the Washington-based Friends Committee on National Legislation. "But it is the case that Washington, which has long succeeded in exercising complete control over all the region's 'peace diplomacy', has now lost the ability to do that."

One former Bush administration official agreed. "Most of this is happening essentially because of people's fear of our lack of leadership and our fecklessness in dealing with a hornet's nest that we stirred up in the first place," said retired Col. Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

After an outburst of deadly sectarian clashes last week threatened to push Lebanon into a second civil war, the Hezbollah-led opposition and U.S.-backed government finally reached an agreement Wednesday to end the political impasse that has paralysed the country for the past 18 months.

The Qatari-mediated deal resolves -- at least temporarily -- a dispute over the electoral law and paves the way for the election of Lebanese Army chief Michel Suleiman to the presidency. U.S. and Saudi-backed factions also conceded to the long-held opposition demand for veto power in the cabinet.

The Bush administration, which has long tended to substitute strong rhetoric for coherent strategy in Lebanon, sought Wednesday to put the Doha talks in a positive light. Even though the deal will give Hezbollah -- which Washington considers a terrorist organisation -- more influence and power in the government, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she viewed the agreement as "a positive step", and called upon all Lebanese leaders to implement the agreement.

Israel and Syria also announced Wednesday that they were engaged in Turkish-mediated negotiations for a comprehensive peace treaty, the first time in eight years such talks have occurred. In contrast to the news out of Lebanon, the Bush administration, which has long resisted any engagement of Syria by its allies, offered a more tepid response.

"What we hope is that this is a forum to address various concerns that we all share about Syria," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, citing Syria's alleged support for Hamas and Hezbollah. "We believe it could help us to further isolate Iran..."

But evidence that Iran can be effectively isolated was belied not only by the clear gains made by Hezbollah at the Doha talks but also by events this week in Baghdad where the Iraqi army encountered no resistance in taking control of Sadr City.

The peaceful entry of the Iraqi troops was reportedly made possible by a secret agreement between Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the man Washington blames for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, none other than Iran's Quds Force commander, Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The deal explicitly barred U.S. ground forces from entering the area, which has been the main stronghold of anti-occupation Shi'a leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

After meeting with Soleimani, Talabani told the Christian Science Monitor that Iran's Quds Force leader was willing to "send a small team" to "discuss any issue" with the U.S., an offer which appears to reflect Iran's perception that it can now deal with the U.S. from a position of strength.

Meanwhile, there is growing speculation that an Egyptian mediated ceasefire between Israel and another group of "extremists and radicals" supported by Iran -- Hamas -- is imminent. The Gaza Strip was plunged into a humanitarian crisis following the Hamas takeover in June 2007. Since then, Palestinian militants and Israeli forces traded rocket attacks and retaliatory raids, triggering a U.S.-backed economic blockade and continued isolation.

The U.S. and Israeli strategy of isolating Hamas suffered another blow when France confirmed Monday that it had been in contact with the leadership of Hamas, another breach by a U.S. ally of Bush's policy of isolating groups linked to Iran.

Indeed, the events of the last several days appear to have confirmed that Washington's strategy, to the extent that it was coherent, if not simple-minded, has pushed the region to the brink. Recognising that, local actors and U.S. allies are finding ways to reach agreement in spite -- if not in defiance -- of White House wishes.

"If you look at the Lebanon deal, Syria-Israeli resumption, Egyptian mediation of a potential ceasefire, either this all got the U.S. green light, and it's a major reversal, or it hasn't, and it's a rather major slap in the face," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation.

"I think it shows U.S. weakness rather than a turnaround in the U.S. position," Levy told IPS.

Some analysts were prepared to give Bush more credit.

"Maybe the really good news out of all this is that whether [the U.S.] played a positive or constructive role, it's pretty clear that they haven't tried to prevent it," said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who served in the White House under former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

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