Pieces Of Puzzles

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CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

Take a look at the Bush administration's top foreign policy issues ( read problems) and think about solving jigsaw puzzles. Take the War on Terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and efforts to bring democracy and reform to the Middle East and then assign lots of hard-to-fit-together pieces to these issues, each very complicated if considered alone.

Now, mix up the pieces so the contents of three or four different puzzles are scrambled in one pile, something that kids in a kindergarten class might do during playtime. That's the analogy used by the Brookings Institution's Stephen P. Cohen, a South Asian scholar and analyst, to describe the difficulties being faced by the Bush administration.

Consider Cohen's special area interest, Pakistan. The government of President Pervez Musharraf not only needs to consider its identity as a country in South Asia and its place in the Islamic world, but there's also the trick of balancing domestic concerns with helping the U.S. in the War on Terrorism with how forcefully to go after al-Qaeda elements and Osama bin Laden in Pakistani provinces bordering on Afghanistan. Another piece of the Pakistan puzzle is how to handle the father of its nuclear program, Dr. A.Q. Khan, who was key to producing a nuclear weapon for his nation, but also made available nuclear technology to others, such as Libya and North Korea, thus complicating Washington's non-proliferation policy.

Iraq of course has its Shi'as, Sunnis and Kurds. It also has foreign fighters, jihadists and former Baath party members who used to serve Saddam Hussein's regime. There are Shi'a clerics like Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands his own militia and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who commands millions of the faithful. Baghdad has many politicians educated in the West and local leaders who are courted by the Bush administration but who do not want to be perceived as being tools of the American occupiers. How do you go after bad guys with guns in Fallujah and not harm the civilian population, the pictures of which are seen all over the Arab world inflaming anti-American sentiment.

How do policy makers sort out the jumbled pile of pieces: First, President Bush's support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral plan to withdraw Israeli settlements from Gaza. Second, Washington's public backing of Israeli positions on Palestinian refugees not being able to return to their homes in Israel, including some Israeli settlements on the West Bank in Israel. This at the same time the Bush administration is trying to get Democratic reforms and independent judicial systems going in Arab countries with authoritarian regimes.

Alina Romanowski, the acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, speaking at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center about the administration's effort to support voices for change in the Middle East, said, "There's no way we can impose reform … we need to find those willing to discuss reform and implement it."

But recognizing the challenge, Romanowski says the reform efforts being urged by the administration's Middle East Partnership Initiative, or MEPI, have to move in parallel to other policies which are often seen in the region to be in conflict with each other. Essentially, she says, "we have to move forward on all tracks."

As diplomats, soldiers and politicians continue to sort their way through this pile of jumbled policy, you can add to the difficulty factor the ongoing political campaign to see who will preside over the next round of solving jigsaw puzzles.

Anybody interested in a nice, easy crossword?