Image: Iraqi soldier
Mohammed Adnan  /  AP
An Iraqi soldier is silhouetted against the sky as a U.S. helicopter flies overhead in Baqouba, Iraq, on Friday. As it did in 2005, the war in Iraq promises to dominate U.S. foreign policy in the upcoming year.
By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/30/2005 7:47:03 PM ET 2005-12-31T00:47:03
ANALYSIS

In the world of national security, 2005 has been the year of the spy: revelations about government snooping without court warrants, controversial CIA interrogation practices, "renditions" of suspected terrorists into secret prisons and, of course, the continuing investigation into the CIA leak. 

With each successive disclosure, Americans have had to confront fundamental questions about how much privacy they are willing to sacrifice in a post-9/11 world. 

Does there have to be a trade-off between national security and personal freedom? The administration's answer this year has been a resounding "yes." Critics, including many legal experts, disagree.

Aggressive stance telegraphed
President Bush's aggressive approach to covert action was foreshadowed in his public statements. He set the tone for a muscular foreign policy this year in an inaugural address that projected advancing democracy throughout the world with the declaration: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." 

Although he added that "America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal, instead, is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way," the thrust of his message was unmistakable: "Democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile can know: America sees you for who you are, the future leaders of your free country."

Against a backdrop of two wars in his first term — in Afghanistan and Iraq — people around the world understood him to mean that the United States would help them advance the cause of freedom and human rights.  

The president had hoped that his newly nominated secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, would attend the inaugural in her new role. But in a hint of conflicts that would come to dominate the year in foreign policy, Senate Democrats delayed a vote, citing Rice's advocacy for going to war in Iraq and her willingness as national security advisor to embrace faulty intelligence about Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Charm offensive
When Rice was finally sworn in on Jan. 26, she moved quickly to put her stamp on American diplomacy. After four years of tensions with Europe over Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and the nettlesome issue of global warming, the new secretary of state embarked on a charm offensive to woo European skeptics. 

French President Jacques Chirac kissed her hand. At a joint appearance in Berlin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder appeared to be flirting like a schoolboy. Leaders of NATO and the European Union were smitten. 

She re-engaged in the Middle East, after years of "benign neglect" when the White House — ironically, with Rice as national security adviser — countermanded Colin Powell's attempts at diplomacy. 

She authorized U.S. support for European negotiations to try to "denuclearize" Iran. And she permitted American diplomats to reopen informal bilateral contacts with North Korea, under the guise of multi-party talks. Her predecessor's supporters noted with grim irony that she was conducting a "Powell foreign policy" after years of vetoing those same initiatives from her previous perch in the White House. 

Rice's softer diplomacy began to pay dividends. And it didn't take long for evidence to appear that people were taking the Bush doctrine of "freedom on the march" to heart.

Assassination in Lebanon
On Feb. 14, Valentine's Day, Lebanon's former Prime Minister Hariri was assassinated while driving in a heavily guarded motorcade in Beirut. Hariri had challenged Syria's government, threatening its longtime dominance of Lebanon.

The carefully orchestrated attack was allegedly ordered by Syria in retaliation. Thousands of Lebanese took to the streets, rebelling against decades of Syrian influence. But at year's end, the results are uncertain.

The Syrian army had been forced to withdraw, but Lebanon's politics were still in disarray. Syria has still not been called to account for Hariri's death.

Bush administration hawks pushing for regime change in Syria have been countermanded by diplomatic concerns that the secular Assad regime could be replaced by an even more threatening, fundamentalist leadership. Much of last winter's hope for Lebanon to expel Syrian intelligence operatives has evaporated.

Instead of Syria teetering under international condemnation for its role, the U.N. investigator into the Hariri killing was forced to resign, reportedly because of Syrian death threats against him and his family. It is an outcome that clouds chances for a successful investigation by his replacement, who takes over in 2006. 

Some signs of hope
If the administration has failed to fully realize its ambitions in Syria, elsewhere in the Middle East there have been some signs of hope in 2005, albeit fragile. 

The president's decision to bet against Yasser Arafat and wait for a more moderate Palestinian leader may be paying off, if Mahmoud Abbas can withstand rising political support for his Hamas enemies and hold onto leadership after upcoming January elections. 

Israel's Ariel Sharon successfully navigated his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and repositioned himself to dominate the center of Israeli politics. Depending on whether his health holds up after upcoming heart surgery, following a minor stroke, he could lead his newly formed independent party into a broader mandate for peace negotiations in 2006.

Still, at year's end, continuing friction in both Gaza and the West Bank served as a reminder of how difficult it will be to achieve the larger goal of a secure Israel living alongside a fully independent and economically viable Palestinian state.

Events in Iran have been less promising. The country's new leader has alarmed the world with his rabidly anti-Semitic statements and denial of the Holocaust. Negotiations to permit U.N. inspections have not succeeded. The administration continues to complain about Iran's support for the Iraq insurgency, while Israel warns of Iran's alleged progress in developing nuclear weapons. 

Iraq, war on terror dominate landscape
And there has been little appreciable progress in the war on terror.

The one major exception was the capture last May of Abu Faraj al Libi — potentially important if he provides details about his past attempts to kill Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf along with future terror plots. As al-Qaida's third in command, he was in a position to have real-time operational knowledge of terror plans and served as a conduit for contact between al-Qaida and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group inside Iraq. 

Perhaps most important, he might have information about al-Qaida’s top leaders, Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. Throughout 2005, only Zawahri has been seen on videos. 

In fact, bin Laden has not been seen or heard since an audio recording in December 2004 and a video that appeared in October of that year. For whatever reason, this is the longest period of silence from the world's most notorious terrorist in the post 9/11 era.

Since April, Washington's counterterror efforts have been led by a new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte. Inhabiting a position recommended partly by the 9/11 commission, he has had to meld more than a dozen agencies into one coherent whole, with mixed results.

During 2005, American intelligence took some comfort in the possibility that continuing efforts had contained bin Laden, but they still do not rest easy this New Year's. 

In the past year, al-Qaida inspired terrorists have taken a heavy toll in well coordinated, separate attacks in Amman, Jordan and London. Also ominous is the growth of smaller regional groups, like the one that bombed the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

And the past year has seen the rise in prominence and ambition of the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi — independent of bin Laden, and for the duration of the U.S. stay in Iraq, more lethal to Americans.

Iraq will continue to dominate
As 2005 ended, the continuing war in Iraq still dominated U.S. foreign policy and the war on terror, setting the terms for relations with allies and adversaries. As 2006 begins, the war also promises to be the most important single factor in the midterm elections. 

And the political debate in Congress over the war is already defining the chances of potential candidates for 2008 — possibly, despite her denials, including the secretary of state.

So no matter how George Bush's domestic policies fare in the year ahead, his foreign policy — and likely his legacy — will ultimately be judged by whether or not he succeeds in Iraq. 

Andrea Mitchell is NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent.

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