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U.S. diplomatically hamstrung by Iraq, again

America's foreign policy in 2006 was dominated by one overwhelming reality: the escalation of violence in Iraq.  Andrea Mitchell,NBC News' Chief Foreign Affairs correspondent, reports on how the war has constrained diplomatic options for the U.S. in virtually all corners of the world.
George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice
President Bush accompanied by Secretary Of State Condoleezza Rice following a meeting at the State Department in Washington on Dec. 11. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
/ Source: NBC News

WASHINGTON — America's foreign policy in 2006 was dominated one overwhelming reality: the escalation of violence in Iraq.

By the end of the year, it was difficult for even top administration officials to deny that Iraq was in the grips of a bloody civil war, a war that constrained diplomatic options for the United States in virtually all corners of the world. 

The year that was: 2006

On Iraq, a former secretary of state — James Baker — set the tone for one of his successors, Condoleezza Rice. The Iraq Study Group called the situation "grave and deteriorating."

And after having finally wrested control of Iraqi reconstruction from the Pentagon, Rice discovered it was a Pyrrhic victory. Only a handful of the state department's provincial reconstruction teams got up and running, with state department employees in Iraq being, for the most part, unable to safely leave the Green Zone.

Meanwhile, the unintended consequences of the Shiite versus Sunni conflict were spilling over into other areas — increasing Iran and Syria's leverage, alarming the leaders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and sucking up all the oxygen that might have been available for initiatives in the rest of the Middle East, Asia or Africa.

Iran was ascendant as 2006 drew to a close. In August, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejected a landmark American and European offer for direct talks if he suspended nuclear research. Months after a deadline to impost sanctions, the United Nations is still debating a weakened resolution, with Russia blocking U.S. attempts to threaten military action and severely constrain Iran's economy.

Iranian support for Shiite insurgents in Iraq and Lebanon have taken a heavy toll on the U.S. and its ally Israel. And Ahmadinejad even hosted a convention of Holocaust deniers in a further attempt to become a hero to the radical world and de-legitimize Israel.

In addition, Condoleezza Rice rejected the Baker-Hamilton recommendation that she engage directly with Iran and Syria.

At the end of 2006, the hopes of a new Lebanon free of Syrian and Iranian influence were fading quickly. The Siniora government was tottering, under siege by Hezbollah supporters strengthened by its self-proclaimed victory in last summer's war with Israel. Even though Lebanon's army was finally deployed in the south, Hezbollah was winning the hearts and minds of the populace by distributing food, money and shelter to victims of the war.

Israel — Palestinian conflict
2006 was the year that the celebrated "road map to peace" came to a dead end. Was it the result of a policy of benign neglect by the U.S. secretary of state or the inevitable fallout of the war in Iraq? Either way, American diplomacy seemed without real leverage.

Ariel Sharon still lays in a coma, replaced by an inexperienced prime minister unable to wield the full powers of his office. The election of Hamas leaders to the Palestinian Authority led to an economic boycott by the U.S. and the European Union, and conflicts were again erupting in Gaza. Rice and her team rejected efforts by intermediaries to launch new rounds of shuttle diplomacy. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, one of the other "partners" of past peace efforts, was leaving his office in the hands of a new, untested secretary general. There was no discernable progress toward establishing the twin goals of a secure Israel bordered by a new Palestinian state.

North Korea
Ignoring warnings from his closest ally, China, North Korea's Kim Jong Il celebrated American independence day with his own style of fireworks — a July 4th missile test.  With the U.S. tied down in Iraq, Kim seemed to feel he could flex his nuclear muscles with impunity. At the end of the year, regional talks between North Korea and its five neighbors finally resumed, but there was little hope of rolling back its obvious progress toward building a nuclear arsenal.

What to watch in 2007

Rice’s Middle East initiative  
Clearly looking for a legacy, Rice will head to the Middle East immediately after the president's Iraq speech in January.  Instead of a setback, she apparently sees opportunity in Iran's rise from the ashes of Iraq. In her view, moderate Arab states like Saudi Arabia now feel so threatened by an ascendant Iran that they are ready to make peace with Israel.

Israel, weary after its experience in Lebanon, also is ready to negotiate. The question at the State Department is whether there is a strong enough Palestinian partner to withstand the likely terrorism that will try to thwart any new American initiative. That said, the outlines of a deal have been on the table since former President Bill Clinton made similar efforts before leaving office.  Rice — clearly stung by implicit criticism of American inaction in the Iraq Study Group — appears ready for her version of shuttle diplomacy.

Iran and Syria
Rice has ruled out overtures from the U.S., but congressional delegations are likely to explore whether Iraq's neighbors can become part of the solution, instead of the problem. And U.N. sanctions, even if watered down, could squeeze Iran enough economically so that Tehran takes notice.

At year's end, there were also intriguing signs that Ahmadinejad may not be as powerful as the U.S. feared: a remarkable demonstration at one of Iran's most prominent technical universities featured nearly half of the student audience setting off firecrackers and burning his picture.  It remains to be seen whether Iran's real powers — the clerical leaders — want their country to be as isolated from the West as they've become under their current leader.

Pressure from Republicans such as Oregon's Senator Gordon Smith as well as the new Democratic leaders of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees will force changes to the administration’s policy.  So will the electoral calendar: by late 2007, presidential politics will overwhelm both parties, as each field an unprecedented number of candidates for their wide-open nominations. 

Despite his determination to fight for "victory," President Bush is likely going to have to lower his sights by the end of the coming year.  And it is a good bet that the Iraq government at the end of 2007 will be comprised of very different characters than the current leaders.

At the end of the year, Fidel Castro was an unseen presence overshadowing all else in the communist state. Just before Christmas, the largest congressional delegation to visit the island was given a royal tour, as Raúl Castro tried to impress the world with his ability to shoulder his brother's legacy. 

So far, the transition led by Raúl Castro and a coalition of Fidel's acolytes has been remarkably peaceful. But once the ailing leader finally passes away, most likely in a matter of months, Cuba could come under siege by Cuban-American exiles eager to reclaim their long-lost property. The Bush administration rejected a Dec. 2 overture from Raúl Castro for a new beginning. Will it take a similar hard line once his brother is gone, setting a confrontational tone for the post-Castro era to come?

An optimistic forecaster might predict the capture of Osama bin Laden and/or his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri in 2007. But with Pakistan and Afghanistan each blaming each other for their inability to find the al-Qaida leaders, as well as with the resurgence of the Taliban, capturing or killing them will likely be more a matter of luck than counter-terror skill. 

But 2007 marks a sixth year since the devastation of 9/11, and in the intervening years there has been much progress against al-Qaida. As the terror group has gone to ground, it has also morphed and metastasized into smaller, more diffuse cells with less central command and control. We see al-Qaida imitators exploding bombs in Egypt's Sinai resorts and trainees targeting London's underground. Still, at year's end, American counter-terror agencies feel that they are beginning to make inroads in the war on terror.  Perhaps it will be one war they can still hope to win.