The American dilemna.jpg

The American dilemna

By: MIKE JOHNSON

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AS THE presidency of George W Bush nears its end, he must be pondering the various twists and turns of fate which have marked his years in office.

As a democracy, of course, the US president serves only two four-year terms, so he must be watching with interest current events in Pakistan and Russia where Presidents Musharraf and Putin, respectively, are trying to manoeuvre themselves into positions where they can hold on to power, despite the democratic process.

Mr Bush, like Tony Blair before him, will no doubt be largely judged on whether events in Iraq continue to prove the disaster which opponents of the invasion predicted. It’s also highly likely that he will have to make far-reaching decisions affecting US relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran before he leaves office. Of these two, Saudi Arabia seems the more simple task.

King Abdullah visited Britain recently and was reported to have been surprised by the level of criticism directed there at the Saudi regime. This mainly centred on its appalling human rights record as well as its tacit support of extreme fundamentalist terrorist groups operating in Iraq. Back home, though, the king is highly regarded for his programme of domestic reforms and, with world oil prices surging, the greater prosperity his people are enjoying.

In the first instance, the Saudis were great supporters of Islamic militancy, and of Osama Bin Laden, because of their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, but the 1991 Gulf War changed all that.

Then, Saudi Arabia sided with the US in its action against Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Now, however, the Bush administration is split over how to deal with the present situation. If it exerts undue pressure, there is a chance the royal family might fall and, worse still, be replaced by a more dangerous extremist regime.

To do nothing, though, might prove more disastrous. A recent analysis by NBC News suggested that Saudis make up 55 per cent of foreign fighters in Iraq. They are also the most uncompromising and militant. Hundreds of Islamic militants have been arrested within Saudi Arabia in recent months but many of those have now been released and are being ‘re-educated’.

The US thus finds itself in a cleft stick. Past ties and reliance on oil supplies are good reasons for inaction, yet wealthy Saudis remain the main financiers of worldwide terrorism. President Bush seems content at the moment to rely on King Abdullah’s efforts to help stabilise the situation in Iraq and to promote the Israeli and Palestinian peace process. More importantly, however, Mr Bush needs Saudi support in dealing with the even more critical situation in Iran.

There is a body of opinion in the US that believes the president is preparing for military action against Iran before he leaves office in January 2009. He recently warned about the dangers of a third world war in the event of Tehran being allowed to obtain the “knowledge to make a nuclear weapon”. His careful use of the word “knowledge” admits that production of such a weapon is still some time away.

Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has repeatedly claimed his nuclear programme is for solely peaceful energy purposes. However, he has also stated that his long-term aim is to wipe Israel off the world map.

Are the two ambitions compatible?

On the face of it they are not. On the other hand, would President Bush add a third front to the Iraqi and Afghan wars, which are already overstretching the US military? It’s clear that the machinery for such an attack is already being put in place. The Pentagon has admitted that more than 1,000 targets in Iran have been identified but only as a matter of “routine”.

In the spring of 2008, America’s biggest conventional weapon, a massive 30,000lb ‘bunker-buster’ capable of destroying deeply buried tunnels and bunkers, was successfully tested in New Mexico.

For the time being at least, though, the West seems to be prepared to ignore the hawks and pin its hopes on an extension of UN sanctions against Tehran, although Russia and China are opposed to such a move.

As a side show to all this, Moscow-watchers are experiencing a political treat as President Putin prepares to leave office in March 2008. Having already served two consecutive terms, the Russian constitution does not allow him to seek a third. Mr Putin doesn’t want to give up power, however, and seems to have found a neat way round the situation.

He recently surprised observers by stating it is “entirely realistic” that he will become prime minister when he stands down. His United Russia party is expected to win the next elections with ease and whoever he backs as the next president is almost certain to be elected. He is then faced with two alternatives.

Parliament could vote to transfer the executive powers already enjoyed by the president to the new prime minister or, alternatively, the new president could resign after a year in office, paving the way for Mr Putin to stand for the presidency once again.

His popularity is enormous and there seems no reason why he should not continue in power for many more years to come.

On the other hand, George W Bush almost certainly nurtures no ambition to emulate his Russian counterpart and remain on the world stage, alongside Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Instead, I should imagine he is already picturing retirement in his Texas ranch but is there just one more throw of the dice left?