Americans are hearing much less from the Bush administration about democracy for the Middle East than they did a year ago. As Shiite Iran rises, the White House has muted its calls for reform in the region as it redirects policy to reembrace Sunni Arab allies – who run, to varying degrees, authoritarian regimes.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 shifted the balance of power in the Middle East, delivering a Shiite-led government to a country that had for decades been dominated by its minority Sunnis. That, in turn, opened the door to Iranian expansion.
To contain Tehran, Washington is now reaching out to Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan, in the form of large arms deals and new talks on such issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which in the eyes of most Arabs and many others remains the greatest source of tension – and extremist support – in the region.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels again to the region next week, underscoring the administration's drive for progress on Middle East peace.
Also, a significant US shift toward Iraq is under way. American policy is moving from bolstering the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a way to force action on political issues to a "bottom-up" approach. This has led to the funding and arming of Sunni tribes and communities in Anbar Province that until recently targeted US forces.
"If you look at it in the context of this Sunni-Shia sectarian divide and the fault line that divides the region, we are in effect adjusting our position," says Martin Indyk, a former US diplomat now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, referring to the broader implications of the new American path in Iraq.
Having paved the way for Iraq's Shiites to take power, he says, "We find ourselves in a situation where that plays to Iran's advantage and to the disadvantage of our erstwhile Sunni Arab allies in the Arab world."
The result of this belated realization, Mr. Indyk says, is that "we are adjusting ourselves to the point where we line up with the Sunnis against the Shias in this broader sectarian divide."
Some experts in the region suggest the reaffirming of ties to America's traditional Arab allies is not so much a sectarian question as more simply a reemphasis on longtime US security interests in the region.
The Bush administration has concluded that those interests – energy security, counterterrorism, and stability – are best served by working with the Arab regimes that happen to be Sunni, they say, but not because of some Sunni-over-Shiite shift.
"It's more Arab-Persian than it is Sunni-Shia," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, highlighting the effort to contain Persian Iran that underpins interests. "It's not sectarian," he adds, "it's realpolitik."
Others agree that the US adjustment has more to do with a retreat from grand goals in the face of Iran's rise, than with changing sides in a sectarian divide.
"We have Condoleezza Rice backing off from supporting democratic reform in the region, and the more messianic goals of the first Bush administration have been abandoned, but that's because they don't work," says Michael Hudson, a specialist in international relations at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
"When you talk to diplomats from places like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, it's not Shiites, it's Iran and the power vacuum it's filling that worries them, and that's what the US is tapping into," he says.
That said, Arab leaders, including Jordan's King Abdullah, have raised concerns about the rise of a "Shiite arc" in the region as a Shiite-dominated government friendly to Iran took the reins in Baghdad. And Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah warned Vice President Dick Cheney during a visit last year that his country could enter the Iraqi conflict on the side of Iraqi Sunnis if the US left Iraq and abandoned them.
It is in that context that some experts like Brookings's Indyk see at least part of the US motivation for arming some of the same Sunni tribesmen, in places like Anbar, whose doors US troops were kicking down not so long ago.
"We find ourselves regionally in a situation which is somewhat similar to what we are doing in Anbar Province," he says. "We are lining up the Sunnis to better take on the Iranians."
But another explanation for that support has more to do with turning Iraq's Sunnis against Al Qaeda-associated forces in Iraq – which are also Sunni, others note.
"I would call what we are doing in Anbar more of a tactic than a strategy, and it is not something we are doing because they are Sunnis, but because they are tribesmen – and tribesmen who are against other Sunnis who are called Al Qaeda," says Mr. Hudson.
CSIS's Mr. Alterman says Saudi Arabia is "using sectarian proxies to fight a national war in Iraq," but he says it does not follow that the US is working with Anbar's Sunnis out of sectarian motivations.
"We're not doing that for them, we're doing it for us" in pursuit of our fight with Islamist extremists, he says.
Some in the US government are using the "progress" the US has made in Anbar to argue specifically for creation of a Sunni-dominated region within a united Iraq.
In a statement last month following the appearance of Gen. David Petraeus before Congress, US Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas called on the US to promote the development of a Sunni region to help Sunnis move forward with a greater reliance on local, rather than national, institutions.
"We should not wait for national reconciliation to take advantage of the bottom-up political progress in Anbar and create a Sunni region that would play an integral role in a united Iraq," said Senator Brownback, who is a Republican candidate for president.
Brownback joined Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, who is also a candidate for president, in cowriting an "Iraq Federalism Amendment" that passed with overwhelming Senate support (75 to 23) on Sept. 26.
The amendment calls for the US to press Iraqis to employ the federalism enshrined in their own constitution and divide the country into sectarian regions. The bill specifically calls on the administration to convene a conference for Iraqis to reach a comprehensive political settlement – widely recognized as the key to ending Iraq's strife – based on federalism.
Senator Biden unveiled last year his plan for Iraq to be divided into three autonomous regions – Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd – under a federal government. After the Senate endorsed that plan last month, both the Maliki government and the US Embassy in Baghdad criticized it as an imposition on Iraq's sovereignty and a recipe for Iraq's partition.
Biden counters that the plan is a realistic response to political conditions on the ground in Iraq "and in fact the only hope for keeping Iraq together."