SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – The Bush administration is hoping that a rare one-two punch of U.S. diplomacy — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates — will add force to talks with Iraq's neighbors about the war and Iran's influence in the Mideast.
Rice and Gates traveled to this Red Sea resort to meet Tuesday with Arab leaders as part of an 11th-hour effort to get their assistance in helping Iraq's fledgling government survive sectarian strife and political infighting. At the same time, the U.S. officials want Saudi Arabia and its neighbors to use financial pressure on Iran as a way of discouraging its nuclear ambitions.
For their part, Arab countries may be worried that escalating opposition in the U.S. to the war in Iraq may signal a declining commitment to security in the region.
Hours before Rice and Gates embarked on their diplomatic mission, the Bush administration announced Monday a proposed U.S. arms package to Arab nations worth more than $20 billion. The sophisticated weaponry, according to U.S. officials, would strengthen relatively moderate Persian Gulf regimes against extremist regimes and ideologies, chief among them Iran.
Rice said the arms deal, along with an aid package for Israel and Egypt, was not a trade-off for assistance but the fruit of years of partnership and a recognition of the region's strategic importance. Although she did not mention oil, that is the region's chief export and the origin of the historical U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, one of the recipients of the U.S. arms initiative.
"We have the same goals in this region concerning security and stability," Rice said. "There isn't a doubt, I think, that Iran constitutes the single most important, single-country challenge to ... U.S. interests in the Middle East and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see."
Gates said key goals for the trip included reaffirming that the United States will continue to have a strong military presence in the region. Although a buildup in U.S. forces has raised the number of troops in Iraq to nearly 160,000, pressure is mounting in the U.S. for redeploying troops if the political and security situation there doesn't improve by fall.
U.S. officials want "to reassure all of the countries that the policies that the president pursues in Iraq have had and will continue to have regional stability and security as a very high priority," Gates said.
Congress must approve the arms deal. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Monday that the weapons should be defensive and added that other nations would step in to sell arms in the region if the U.S. did not.
Specific figures for Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were not final and will be settled in the coming weeks, the State Department said.
The new sales to Arab countries will be balanced with a more than 25 percent increase in military aid to Israel over the next 10 years so it can hold its military edge over neighbors with which it has no peace deal.