After Sharon: Bush's Mideast Agenda

President losing tough-guy friend in unfriendly region

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Without Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, who lay gravely ill Wednesday night after a devastating stroke, President Bush’s Middle East ambitions become even more bizarre and out of reach.

In addition to its vaunted regime change in Iraq, what Bush and his neocon advisers want to do is carry out regime change in Syria and, most importantly, Iran. Now, with the hardline Sharon fighting for his life, the region could be thrown into chaos.

Sharon, whose governing powers were transferred to his deputy Ehud Olmeter after the stroke, has been a muscular, usually friendly presence for Bush in a region where even his declared allies are often suspect. The mere existence of Israel in the Middle East, not to mention America's support for that nation, has provoked brazen hostility from neighboring countries. Sharon's exit from power comes as elections in the Palestinian territories appear likely to hand power there to actors the Bush administration won't find so friendly.

"Among Palestinians, there is growing political chaos and the militant Islamic Hamas organisation looks like it will emerge from elections as a major political player in the Palestinian Authority," reports the BBC. "For the international community, and the Arab states that have signed peace agreements with Israel, the combination of political chaos in the Palestinian territories and an Israeli leader without a plan of any kind, must be alarming."

Whatever else one may think about it, Sharon at least the semblance of a steadying hand in Israel. But with Sharon gone, the prime minister's policy of disengagement with the Palestinians is almost sure to be changed, and the Palestinians themselves are growing more chaotic by the day.

Thus far, Bush's Middle Eastern policy, focused as it is on Iraq, is a disaster. Not only do we not control Iraq, but the war has now all but stopped oil production and distribution. Second to Saudi Arabia, Iraq has immense unexploited oil reserves.

A U.S. strike of some sort against Iranian nuclear operations has been rumored every day in Washington. But this seems like sheer madness, since over 100,000 of America's troops are bogged down in Iraq. Iran's nuclear labs and facilities are spread out around the country and hence not easy to take out. We have no political surrogates to take over even if there were a successful coup, which seems highly unlikely.

And if we dare take on Iran, we face not only a huge battle-hardened army, but a major cog in OPEC. Messing with an OPEC nation could wreak havoc in the international oil markets. A war against Iran would almost certainly draw in the oil-hungry nation of China, in one way or another.

The Bush agenda in the Middle East is under pressure from all sides, with resources low and consequences high. The loss of Sharon should mean a serious reshuffling of the president's agenda.

 
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