WASHINGTON — President Bush's overhaul of his war strategy is accelerating, as more senior officials are leaving the Pentagon and the administration is signaling its readiness to open direct negotiations with Iran regarding Iraq and to plan a regional "peace conference."
At the Pentagon, many senior hawks are following Defense Secretary Rumsfeld into the private sector. Among those leaving is the assistant secretary of defense for international security, Peter Rodman, who will take up a post at the Brookings Institution.
Two administration officials said yesterday that the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Stephen Cambone, was also looking to leave the Pentagon. Mr. Cambone is likely to face a subpoena from congressional Democrats looking to investigate his role in the drafting of interrogation policies.
In Washington yesterday, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq, Ambassador David Satterfield, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that America was looking at the timing for a dialogue with Iran and was prepared in principle to re-enter such negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
In the Middle East this week, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch is sounding out Arab leaders about a regional peace conference, tentatively scheduled for November 30 in Amman, Jordan, to entice Israel and the Palestinian Arabs to begin negotiating a settlement to their conflict.
The diplomatic maneuvering and personnel exodus undercut recent remarks from Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Rice. On her plane to Hanoi on Tuesday, Ms. Rice said, "I think the question is, is there anything about Iranian behavior that suggests that they are prepared to contribute to stability in Iraq. And I have to say that at this point I don't see it."
Mr. Satterfield yesterday, however, said, "We are prepared in principle to discuss Iranian activities in Iraq. The timing of such a direct dialogue is one we still have under reviews."
Both co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group, the panel charged with suggesting new war policy, met in September with Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif. The Republican co-chairman of the study group, James Baker, in October told several press outlets that he believed in "talking to your enemies." And early options papers first reported last month by the Sun also recommend a dialogue with Iran and Syria.
Mr. Baker in this respect is not alone. The incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Levin, a Democrat of Michigan, yesterday proposed an international Iraq conference.
Talks with Iran are significant on two fronts. Military commanders in Iraq have said for the past two years that Iran has supplied sophisticated explosives and weapons to Shiite militias and other groups attacking American soldiers. In addition, American intelligence officials widely believe that Tehran is pressuring Shiite political parties to obstruct efforts to decommission the militias that have conducted a campaign of revenge killings against Sunni Arab civilians.
The hope for the proponents of an America-Iran dialogue is that negotiations could persuade the mullahs to use their influence in Iraq to help end the cycle of ethnic violence. At the same time however, the talks could be seen as a tacit acceptance of Iran's continued enrichment of uranium. In an earlier written offer to negotiate with Iran, Ms. Rice had made suspension of enrichment a precondition any talks.
A policy shift may also be in the offing on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Welch on Tuesday was in Cairo to meet with Arab leaders, including the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Mahmoud Abbas, to discuss the prospects for resuming negotiations. Yesterday Mr. Welch was in Amman trying to unify Arabs countries on criteria for lifting the economic blockade of a newly organized Palestinian Arab government.
Diplomats are eyeing November 30 as a possible date for a peace summit in Amman, Jordan that would include Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Russia, the European Union and representatives of the United Nations.
The summit is contingent on the new Palestinian Authority and whether it recognizes Israel's right to exist, agrees to prior agreements, and renounces terrorism. In exchange, America would drop bank sanctions that have starved the authority of cash for the last 10 months.
While those have been the Israeli and American demands of the Palestinian Arabs since Hamas won legislative elections in January, two diplomatic sources yesterday who requested anonymity said the State Department would be willing to accept a government that included some Hamas members if a majority of the cabinet agreed to the terms laid out in the 2003 road map document signed by both sides as well as America, Europe, Russia and the United Nations.
"We are looking at creative ways to get around this," one diplomat said. "I would not call this ‘Hamas lite,' but if we could get a government of negotiators instead of terrorists we'd take it."