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Rice's new restraint reflects a broader reworking of the democracy agenda that dominated U.S. foreign policy after 9/11. Two factors have contributed to that change. The first is the reality that free elections in places like Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have handed power to fundamentalist groups like Hizballah and Hamas that have little interest in pluralistic, secular governance. Whatever the ultimate benefits of implanting democracy in the Middle East, in the short run it's more likely to damage U.S. interests than serve them.
The second cause for the shift is Iraq. The country's dissolution has reduced the U.S.'s leverage in the region, emboldened Iran and alienated the U.S.'s traditional Sunni allies. "They've been reticent to provide real support," says Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. "They think we've created a government that is nothing but a façade for a bunch of vicious Shi'i militias." Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is on "borrowed time." Rice says now that "Iraqis will have to decide whether their government is functioning. But that's not for us to decide." And yet the very fact that the U.S. would raise the possibility that a popularly elected government in Iraq might get dumped reflects an acknowledgment that elections alone won't bring stability.
So is there an overriding strategic goal beyond spreading democracy? Does the Administration have a framework for dealing with the most immediate challenges it confronts--civil war in Iraq, a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and the swelling influence of Iran? Put simply, do Bush and Rice know where they're going?
The answers aren't readily apparent. Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan means both wars will continue to consume the bulk of the U.S.'s military resources, to say nothing of the mental energies of the President's lieutenants in Washington. Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates has hinted that the increase in troop strength in Iraq may last only until the summer, the Administration rejects the idea of setting any firm limits on the U.S. commitment there. Says Rice: "This is going to happen over a period of time ... It's not as if there's a cutoff point, because that's not how it's going to unfold." And it's hard to imagine a significant decrease in U.S. troop presence in Iraq before the end of Bush's term.
That complicates the U.S.'s strategy for dealing with the country that has lately entered the Administration's rhetorical gunsights: Iran. Since the start of the year, the U.S. has ramped up its bellicosity toward Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It has moved a second aircraft-carrier group to the Persian Gulf and conducted raids against Iranian targets in Iraq. But the prospect of a military confrontation causes shudders among many U.S. officials, given Tehran's capacity to retaliate against U.S. troops in Iraq and strike civilian targets around the world. Rice says that "the President absolutely believes this can be done through diplomacy"--which is a big reason that Iran has become one of her main obsessions.