American policy in Middle East caught in 'a perfect storm'

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Rarely can United States policy in the Middle East have been in such disarray as now.

Events in Iraq are a fair approximation of civil war, while after a brief display of smiles, Iran is more truculent than ever over its nuclear ambitions.

As for Israel, far from moving towards peace with its neighbours, the Jewish state is embroiled in an escalating, two-front confrontation with Lebanon and Syria to its north, and with the Palestinians in its midst.

Three years ago when the US invaded Iraq, vowing to install a stable peaceful democracy that would be a model for the region, such a state of affairs was unthinkable in Washington. The war would be brief, policy makers asserted, and Iraq's various ethnic and religious groups would come together to build a new country after the departure of the brutal and hated Saddam Hussein. American troops would be fêted and made welcome as liberators.

That was the spring of 2003. By mid-July 2006, some 2,550 US troops have lost their lives in a war costing $250m (£136m) a day, while the death toll among Iraqis may be five times as high.

In the past four days, at least 130 people in and around Baghdad have been killed in sectarian violence, including up to 23 Shias seized yesterday at a bus station north of the capital. The killings have made a mockery of the proclaimed security crackdown in Baghdad by the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

Iran meanwhile seems less inclined than ever to give up its nuclear ambitions. Yesterday, the world's major powers referred Iran back to the United Nations Security Council after its failure to reply to the West's offer last month of incentives to halt is uranium enrichment activities.

But Russia and China have shown no sign of willingness to adopt tough sanctions against the Islamic regime in Tehran. And in the end America may be faced with a choice akin to the one it faced over Iraq: either acquiesce in doing virtually nothing - or bypass the UN and form a new "coalition of the willing" to take tougher, conceivably even military, action.

To these two flashpoints, a third has now been added: Israel's reprisals against the Palestinians over one of its soldiers taken hostage last month on the border with Gaza. Some 50 Palestinians have now been killed.

The crisis spread to confrontation yesterday with Hizbollah guerrillas, backed by Syria and Iran, in southern Lebanon, after incidents in which three Israeli soldiers were killed and two others captured.

The White House insists that its policies are on track. If there are "a lot of issues in motion", according to Stephen Hadley, Mr Bush's National Security Adviser, "in some sense, it was destined to be. We have a president that wants to take on the big issues and see if he could solve them on his watch."

More probably an administration whose energies have been consumed by the war in Iraq, on which Mr Bush has staked his presidency, may be simply overwhelmed. The separate crises amount to "a perfect storm", Madeleine Albright, who was Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, told The Washington Post last week. "We have not been paying attention to a lot of these issues."

In the latest flare-up between Israel and its neighbours, Washington has been almost silent. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, who is struggling to orchestrate the response to Iran's defiance, merely blamed Hizbollah for upsetting "regional stability", and urged Syria to rein in its radical protégés.

But Washington's rebukes are far less pointed than a year ago, in the aftermath of the St Valentine's Day assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri - when the talk here was of "regime change" in Damascus to follow that in Baghdad.

The change reflects a growing, if tacit, acceptance that the unilateralist "Bush doctrine", involving pre-emptive action if necessary to remove a threat, is beyond the power of even the US to implement on its own. Hence the President's more restrained tone of late, encapsulated by Time magazine's latest cover, proclaiming an end to "Cowboy Diplomacy". The problems also reflect a failure to think its policies through. The irony is that Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine achieved their roles in government thanks to democratic elections - exactly what Washington has been advocating for the entire Middle East.

On the periphery of the region, meanwhile, the problems grow more daunting, with the renewed Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and the apparent seizure of control of much of Somalia, long a potential terrorist redoubt, by Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Further afield, North Korea's brazen missile tests may be a sign that, like Iran, the reclusive Communist regime does not believe that with so many of its forces tied down in Iraq, Washington has a viable military option.