World's arc of crisis at high pitch

The US may have to steel itself for a prolonged presence in the region after violence in Israel, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

When the White House said it wanted to transform the Middle East, surely it didn't mean into this.

Two years after the administration of George W. Bush launched its war on terrorism, the most volatile area of the world - an arc of crisis that runs from Israel to Afghanistan - remains torn by conflict and bloodshed. Polarization, not reconciliation, at the moment seems to be the sentiment on the march.

Iraq is still reverberating from the explosion that blew up the UN's Baghdad headquarters. In Afghanistan, Taliban remnants seem resurgent. Months of relative quiet in Israeli-Palestinian relations has given way to a new cycle of suicide bomb-and-response.

These events don't mean the region is sliding inevitably into an abyss. The vividness of transient tragedies can overshadow quieter progress. But taken together they remain troubling, say analysts. At the least, the administration might need to prepare the US public for an armed presence in the region that could last longer, and be more onerous, than seemed possible only a few weeks ago.

"The trend line is not good but I don't think it's out of control," says Michele Flournoy, an international security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The neoconservative thinkers within the administration who long pushed for the invasion of Iraq, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, talked about it as a transforming event for the whole region. Remove Saddam Hussein, and change Iraq into a prosperous democracy, so their thinking goes, and inevitably Iraq's neighbors will follow suit.

It's a justification for war that has become increasingly prominent in administration rhetoric in recent weeks, particularly as the hunt for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction has so far proved fruitless.

Invading Iraq was "a tough decision to make the world more peaceful," said President Bush at an August 13 appearance before reporters.

But so far it isn't peace that seems to be descending on the Middle East.

The US-backed road map for Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is on the edge of irrelevance as both sides gird for more violence. Israeli rockets killed four members of Hamas on Sunday - although, in a positive sign, Palestinian forces said they were taking steps to stop arms smuggling by Hamas and other militant groups.

Meanwhile, three British soldiers were killed on Saturday by insurgents in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, in the latest example of continued strikes against US-led occupying forces. On Sunday a leading Shiite cleric was wounded, and three of his bodyguards killed, by a bomb in the holy city of Najaf.

In Afghanistan, a suspected Taliban ambush killed five government soldiers in the southeast of the country.

A pivotal week?

Overall the news from overseas has been bad enough to convince some analysts that Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean is right: the war on terror might become a political negative for President Bush next year.

A few have gone so far as to compare the events of last week to the Tet Offensive, the 1968 North Vietnamese-led assault that convinced many Americans victory was not at hand in Vietnam.

The problem for the administration may be that Americans see events in Iraq and Afghanistan as increasingly unrelated to their own security, according to these analysts. Ousting terrorist-training camps from Afghanistan was one thing. Struggling to restore electricity in Baghdad is quite another.

"People are willing to spend lives but not for something that's humanitarian, and that's what this increasingly seems to be," says John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor of international relations.

Room for leeway

Others differ, saying that while public support as measured by polls has dipped in recent months, US backing for Bush's foreign policies remains strong by historical standards. Furthermore, Americans allow their presidents quite a bit of leeway to keep troops deployed overseas, argues Richard Stoll, a Rice University political scientist. After all, the US remained in Vietnam for years after public support for the war dropped below 50 percent.

Unless US deployments to the Middle East become an unmitigated disaster it may be domestic issues that sway voters next fall.

"If the president feels it is important enough to stay the course, he can do it and not be turned out of office," says Mr. Stoll.

A shift in the administration's tone

However, he may need to more fully prepare the American people for the long slog to come. When Bush landed on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in front of a large sign saying "Mission Accomplished," the message sent regarding Iraq was one of closure. Lately administration officials have been sending different signals - as when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said that the US effort might be a "generational" one akin to the the reconstruction of Europe following World War II.

Bush is scheduled to give a speech Tuesday in front of an American Legion audience. The tone he strikes might be an interesting indication of what officials plan as their message in weeks ahead.

The attack on the UN compound in Baghdad had many targets as well as the physical one, and one was US opinion. The terrorists sought to weaken the nation's will to fight. Any deterioration in US commitment would likely play out over a long period of time, given the resources already committed in Iraq.

"I can't envision any American president at this stage saying, 'We're just packing up and leaving,' " says Stoll.

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