Middle East Considers Impact of U.S. Leaving Iraq

The long-awaited Baker-Hamilton report is expected to be released Wednesday, and Americans aren't the only ones anticipating the recommendations; Iraq's neighbors are also waiting to see what the panel will say. Middle Eastern journalists describe the area's expectations about the pending Iraq report. They include Ibrahim Hamidi, Damascus Bureau chief for Al Hayat; Nabil al-Sharif, Editor in Chief of Ad-Dustour; and Rami Khori, Editor at Large of the Daily Star.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Another secret memo about Iraq has leaked out of the Bush administration. This time the words were written by outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In a memorandum submitted two days before he resigned early last month, Rumsfeld acknowledged that U.S. strategy in Iraq was, quote, "not working well enough or fast enough," end quote, and that the time had come to make, quote, "a major adjustment," end quote.

One adjustment Rumsfeld suggests is to lower public expectations for what can be accomplished by the United States in Iraq. The New York Times broke this story on its Web site yesterday. And in a few minutes, we'll talk with one of the reporters who wrote it.

The leak of the Rumsfeld memo closely followed the leak of another memo, this one by Steven Hadley, the president's national security adviser. It bluntly questioned the ability of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to govern his country. Hadley's memo became public just days before President Bush was due to meet with Maliki in Amman this past week. They spoke about the war and what can be done about it.

That's also the subject of a report due out this week from the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel led by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat. Many of its recommendations have also been leaked, including suggestions for reducing the American military presence in Iraq and a recommendation to open diplomatic talks with Syria and Iran to broaden efforts to end the fighting in Iraq and to quiet tensions in the Middle East.

We called editors and reporters at three newspapers in the Middle East to get an idea of what people over there expect from the Iraq Study Group. First, to Ibrahim Hamidi, Damascus bureau chief for the London-based Arabic daily newspaper, Al-Hayat. From where he is in Syria, Hamidi says, the United States already appears to have lost the Iraq War.

Mr. IBRAHIM HAMIDI (Bureau Chief, Al-Hayat): When the American administration launched the war on Iraq in 2003, Bush said that Iraq was invaded to bring democracy, to fight terrorism, to bring stability and a good future for the people in this region. And now, after three years, what we see is totally the opposite, that Middle East is less stable. And Iraq, we are on very close to sectarian civil war. And now nobody is talking about bringing democracy to the region or to Iraq. So yes, the American policies have failed in Iraq.

SEABROOK: As people in Syria look toward the Iraq Study Group to come out with recommendations for the region, how is this seen in Syria, and is there very high expectations for this board?

Mr. HAMIDI: The group, Hamilton/Baker group, is very respected here. But at the same time, the Syrian authorities do not have any illusions. They know this group cannot make policies. And since some leaks were published in the press saying that Baker would recommend engaging with Syria, with so many articles, many statements by the American officials saying no, we should not engage Syria, in fact we have to punish Syria. So the expectations here are very reasonable. No illusions, just reasonable expectations in Damascus.

SEABROOK: Those impressions from Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi are echoed in Jordan, says Nabil al-Sharif, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Ad-Dustour in Amman. Al-Sharif says President Bush's trip to Amman last week only served to lower expectations for the future of Iraq.

Mr. NABIL AL-SHARIF (Editor-in-Chief, Ad-Dustour): Before he came to the region, we really had high expectations that he's coming with a changed mind, he's coming with a new commitment, he's coming with the determination to change course. But really, listening to him during the press conference with the Prime Minister of Iraq, Mr. Maliki, we were disappointed a little bit, because he repeated the same old statements. He echoed the same old positions without any apparent change in his perception of the problem.

SEABROOK: Al-Sharif says that's led to a perception in Jordan that President Bush doesn't understand just how bad the situation in Iraq is, and how deeply it influences politics and policy across the Middle East. People in Jordan, for example, al-Sharif says, don't see themselves as being very different from Iraqis.

Mr. AL-SHARIF: Of course, what happens in Iraq matters to Jordan, Kuwait and other countries, because we are next door neighbors to Iraq. We have common borders, and the people in Iraq are like us, Arabs. They speak the same language. They have the same religion. So if they suffer, we suffer. We cannot be happy. We cannot be content to see them being killed. They are our brethren. So that's why the whole region is boiling, because of what's happening in Iraq. We will never be happy and content unless - until the Iraqi people and the Palestinian people, for that matter, have their stability and security.

SEABROOK: And so a big part of the problem is, says Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon, that the Bush administration continues to treat Iraq as if it were an isolated problem in an isolated country, ignoring, Khouri says, the effect Iraq's collapse is having on its neighbors, and ignoring the effect on the region of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Editor-at-Large, Daily Star): I think there's a great deal of bitterness among most people in the Arab world that the U.S. comes in here with its army, makes this big mess, screws things up royally, makes the security situation much worse for everybody in the region, and then turns to neighbors and says, oh, we need your help to solve this so we can get our troops out of there and leave you with this mess in your hands to solve.

And the double bitterness, I think, is the fact the U.S. doesn't come to the Arabs and the Turks and the Iranians and all the other neighbors, it doesn't come to them and ask them for help in, for instance, solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, or Lebanon, or other issues. So this American approach is seen to be, I think by many people, it's seen to be rather colonial.

SEABROOK: What are the long-term implications for countries in the region, especially more moderate Arab countries, of the United States pulling out of Iraq and leaving it?

Mr. KHORI: It's really difficult to predict right now what will be the long-term implications. It really depends on what happens in the aftermath of any such pullout. The interesting and important thing today is that it's no longer a uni-focus or one issue situation. Iraq is a big issue, of course, but so is the Arab-Israeli conflict, so is the situation in Lebanon, so is the U.S.-Syrian tension, so is the U.S.-Iranian tension. The best we can hope for is that an American withdrawal from Iraq is going to coincide with a more serious attempt to look at these other issues and to address them in a more rational way, in a more constructive and realistic way. And we hope that's what the Baker-Hamilton team will come up with some ideas in that direction.

If you just pull out of Iraq and you leave Lebanon and Palestine, Israel, Iran, all these issues as they are, the situation is really quite dark for many of America's so-called moderate Arab allies because they are losing credibility and even in some cases losing legitimacy with their own people. And everywhere you have an election, the Islamist forces are winning big - everywhere. America's friends in the area really have a lot of baggage on their shoulders that's wearing them down and in some cases may crush them.

SEABROOK: Khouri gives us an example of this. The street protests taking place this weekend in Beirut, where Hezbollah, with the backing of Syria and Iran, is trying to force the government of Lebanon out of power, bolstering their arguments by calling a puppet regime of the United States. Those arguments can only be countered, the journalists we spoke with said, if the Bush administration begins to craft a strategy for the Middle East region as a whole rather than looking for a solution to the U.S. problem in Iraq.

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