There's little doubt that as President Bush addressed the country and Congress this week to give them his constitutionally mandated State of the Union speech that the war in Iraq was much on the minds of his listeners.
But while Americans debate the consequences of further involvement or withdrawal in that country, other Middle East problems are also competing for our attention.
Most importantly, a major effort is under way to pressure the Bush administration to devote more of its energy and resources toward achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The administration has long been criticized for not prioritizing the peace process, and letting events drift until the parties were ready to deal. Many of those who back more effort on this matter believe that Israel is at the heart of all Middle Eastern problems. This was the thesis accepted by the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker.
Any fair-minded analysis of the region and its many conflicts makes it clear that this is not the case. No solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict would eliminate tensions between Shi'ites and Sunni Muslims, or calm the drive for regional supremacy by Iran. Nor would it satisfy the Islamists of Al Qaeda and similar groups, whose ultimate goal is the overthrow of the West itself, not merely the annihilation of the Jewish state.
Many of those who wish Israel well are also arguing that the administration must push hard for an Israel-Arab peace deal now. The problem is not that such a goal is undesirable, but that the Palestinians are obviously incapable of making peace at this moment. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas elucidated this point earlier this month when he rallied his Fatah Party supporters by urging them to unleash more violence against Israel.
This speech — not the first time he had ever uttered such sentiments — was significant because it demonstrated the desperation of this supposed "moderate" as he loses ground to his Hamas rivals. Even if he were willing to make peace with Israel, he does not have the power to make it stick, no matter how much aid he might receive from either Israel or the United States.
Anyone urging Bush to devote his last two years in office to negotiations between Israel and the P.A. is setting him up for even more woe.
And those who think there are no consequences from lost peace initiatives should remember the lesson President Bill Clinton learned at the end of his tenure in 2000. At that time, Clinton did exactly what Bush is being urged to do, and made an all-out effort to achieve a deal in spite of the fact that the Palestinian leader — the late Yasser Arafat — had no intentions toward peace. This push not only failed, but it set the stage for years of heightened violence. As bad as the current situation is, those who think it can't be made worse should think again.
Looming over everything else is Iran. Its push to achieve nuclear capability makes all the other problems confronting the United States in the Middle East seem insignificant. If the Islamist republic gains nuclear weapons — and it will if left free to do so — all other Middle Eastern problems will be resolved, though not in a way that any sane person would desire. It would be far better for Bush and his team to use their last years in office working on stopping that destructive goal.
If Bush has any political capital left to spend — and he may not have much — it's on the Iranian front that it must be used, and not on yet another futile campaign to force Israel to accommodate a so-called partner that doesn't want peace.