In a little over a year, the US mission in Iraq seems to have narrowed dramatically. Instead of the lofty goals of fostering a democracy that could serve as a regional beacon, the US now aims to curb the violence, especially in Baghdad.
This narrowing gives the American venture in Iraq more focus, while preserving hopes that the administration's long-range goals can be achieved, analysts say. But some warn that it is also dangerous if it becomes an end in itself, causing US policymakers to lose sight of the bigger risks and objectives in the Middle East.
And some experts say the US is confusing tactical adjustments with a strategy.
"I see tactical and operational efforts that make sense – secure Baghdad, step up the fight in Anbar [Province] to disrupt Al Qaeda and the insurgent strongholds there, and all that's fine, but strategically we seem to be floundering," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer and Middle East specialist.
Pointing to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts to encourage a bloc of Sunni powers to counter Shiite Iran's rise in the region, he says such moves raise questions of strategic coherence.
"We start with the goal of creating a regime of democracy and the rule of law that by its example will spread the rule of law and democracy in the region, and there's still a chance it will work," Mr. Peters says. "But now here we are, embracing our default strategy which is to support the devil we know, which is the Sunni regimes and, in particular, the Saudis. We are reverting to cold war form – they are our dictators, therefore they are good dictators – and falling prey to a religious war the Saudis are fighting with the Shias."
Over the short term, American eyes are going to be focused on the turn of events inside Iraq, from the trend in bombings to the pace of US casualties. That is why the immediate US aim is to reduce the violence to a level that gives Iraqis the breathing space they need to make a number of crucial political decisions, analysts say, while tamping down the risks of instability spreading to other neighboring states – or creating a vacuum for Al Qaeda to prosper.
"The objective now is not so much that the violence be ended, but that the trend lines have been altered a year from now so that instead of getting worse, things are getting better," says James Dobbins, former envoy of the Clinton and Bush administrations to the Balkans and Afghanistan and now a security analyst with the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. "There may be much loftier objectives people could wish for, but I think the administration, Congress, and the public would be relieved if the situation in Iraq is slightly better a year from now instead of a little worse."
But that raises questions of just how much the US is in a position to influence even short-term goals.
The National Intelligence Estimate is "spot on" when it says that Iraq's conflict cannot be blamed on any of its neighbors, says Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, an international peace and security research group in Washington, D.C. "Whether it's Iran or Syria, they are not the determining factor in the violence there."
Even though America's involvement is very different, it is finding its role as a "determining factor" increasingly limited in Iraq, she says. "Either the Iraqis are motivated by an enduring passion to get us out of there, or they are consumed by an intra-Iraqi dynamic to such a degree that we are irrelevant to the situation going on there."
Either way, she says, the Iraqis "can't accept our influence right now, even though they desperately need help from outside actors."
That does not mean that civil conflicts are impermeable to outside influence. Mr. Dobbins notes, for example, that violence in the Balkans in the 1990s was brought to an end by external pressures.
But it does mean that the US cannot operate under "wishful thinking" of what it would like to see happen, Mr. Peters says, but must prepare "plans C, D, F, and G" for other scenarios that may unfold.
In a new report for the Council on Foreign Relations, Middle East expert Steven Simon says the US should begin planning for "after the surge," by shifting its focus to containing the conflict and strengthening US military positions elsewhere in the region. He says the US should also "engage Iraq's neighbors" in developing a stabilization plan for Iraq.
"As it prepares to withdraw military [personnel] from Iraq, the US should act decisively and creatively across the wider Middle East to offset perceptions of American weakness that our setback in Iraq has triggered," Mr. Simon says. One area for action would be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he adds, which the White House is now taking up again.
Former Army intelligence specialist Peters agrees that the US must pay particular attention to perceptions of American weakness and to the impact a perceived military defeat in Iraq would have.
"We can afford a strategic defeat in Iraq, and a diplomatic reversal, but what we can't afford is a perception of a military defeat," he says. "Given how our security is intertwined with the region, we must at a minimum make it clear that our military has not been defeated."