WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush's top diplomatic and military managers have a tough assignment in the Middle East in the week ahead: convince skeptical Arab nations they have more to lose if Iraq fails than they stand to gain by waiting until the U.S. leaves or Bush's term ends.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia for a rare joint lobbying effort to prod Iraq's mostly rich, Sunni-led Mideast neighbors to help stabilize the chaotic country and support its weak Shiite-headed government.
Gates and Rice also will do some hand-holding with Arab allies worried that the U.S. may leave a dangerous vacuum if it withdraws troops too quickly. The Cabinet secretaries also will try to solidify what the U.S. sees as a bulwark of generally moderate Arab states against an increasingly ambitious and unpredictable Iran.
Unity against Iran is not a hard sell. But Washington has had far less success in rallying Arab help for Iraq that goes much beyond words.
Arab money and diplomatic support has lagged behind Europe's, and some of Iraq's neighbors quietly tolerate, or may secretly support, attacks inside Iraq. Some of the violence targets U.S. forces and some of it Shiite militias and neighborhoods.
"The United States wants to persuade all the countries in the region to be proactive in a helpful way," said Samir Sumaida'ie, Iraq's ambassador to Washington. "Waiting and watching is not a helpful posture."
Other Arab diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said waiting and watching is exactly what they plan to do, at least as long as the killing does not spread beyond Iraq's borders and the U.S. is trying to stand in the sectarian breach.
"There is the general sense that no one wants to get aboard a sinking ship," said one diplomat, who like others requested anonymity to describe sensitive discussions within his government and with U.S. officials.
Arab states with restive Sunni populations see little advantage in giving overt support to a government in Baghdad seen as hostile to Sunnis, even though Arab leaders fear a wave of unrest or civil war if Iraq collapses, diplomats said. That fear may be Bush's strongest card, but he has declining leverage as his term winds down. He leaves office in January 2009.
Envoys from eight Gulf and other Mideast nations will hear from Rice and Gates at a regional meeting Tuesday. It is to take place at the same Egyptian resort that hosted a major international conference on securing Iraq nearly three months ago. Little has happened since, despite specific pledges of help and the formation of committees meant to help Iraq solve some of its toughest problems. The committees have yet to meet, although there are plans to do so shortly.
"Secretary Rice and Secretary Gates, when they go out on their trip next week, are going to be talking to the Saudis, as well as others, about what they might do," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday.
Saudi Arabia is Washington's most powerful and closest Arab ally in a troubled region where anti-American sentiment is growing rapidly. The kingdom built on oil wealth also is the main focus of the visit by Rice and Gates.
A traditional dinner with Saudi King Abdullah is the centerpiece of their visit to Jiddah, their last joint stop before heading to separate meetings in the region.
"The Saudis have ... provided some support to the Iraqis," McCormack said. "We're looking for some more."
He listed forgiving millions in Iraqi debt dating to the Saddam Hussein era, a step the Saudis have promised to take, and security help for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"There are a few areas where they can follow through on pledges that they've already made," McCormack said. "This is a case of you ask more of your friends, and we're doing that."
Sumaida'ie, the Iraqi ambassador in Washington, said Saudi Arabia has begun to address the flow of "money and suicide bombers" into Iraq, but could do much more to tone down sectarian-tinged rhetoric in mosques and elsewhere.
A senior defense official said a planned U.S. weapons sale to Saudi Arabia and other moderate Gulf states is likely to be a topic during meetings. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because details have not been made public, said there are a number of pending arms sales to countries in the region that leaders hope to finalize in the coming months.
The official said the sale is critical for the Gulf region "to deal with what has been a changing strategic threat from Iran and other forces." The official said discussions with the Saudis probably would outline what the White House could ask Congress to approve, but no formal announcement is planned.
In April, during a swing through the Middle East, Gates sought to ease concerns about the weapons transfer. The sale — expected to total about $20 billion — would include advanced weaponry and air systems that would greatly enhance the striking ability of Saudi warplanes.
Israeli leaders have worked to block the deal, which requires congressional approval. Gates recently told the Israelis that moderate Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia would be able to get the weapons elsewhere, including from Russia.
Gates also is expected to reassure Gulf countries of the U.S. military's commitment to the region. That message may be colored, however, by the fact that after a military buildup in the Gulf, the U.S. Navy may have only one aircraft carrier in the region for part of this year.
The Navy has maintained two carriers and a variety of accompanying ships in the Gulf since early this year as a show of strength aimed largely at Iran, as well as a message of staunch commitment. But a routine swap of ships could leave just one in the Gulf in the coming weeks unless one there now is ordered to stay beyond its planned departure time.