Bush's Last Year: The Best, One Hopes, Is Yet To Come
What should President George W. Bush, currently visiting the Middle East, expect to achieve during his last year in office, even as the American people begin to choose his successor?
The answer could not possibly objectively clearer and subjectively more obscure. The gap between the real Middle East and how it is perceived by all too many people in Washington and in the academic-journalistic elite is far too wide.
Three quick examples are useful to underline this point. First, the Annapolis summit was widely hailed throughout America and the West as a big success, even by Bush's biggest enemies. (That means, of course, it achieved the main goal, which was not primarily about the Middle East itself.) In the region, however, less than one-fifth of Israelis and Palestinians thought it had done any good. People in the region knew better.
Second, many in the United States have hailed what seems to be a de-escalation of U.S. pressure on Iran over the nuclear issue. The response by Gulf Arab states, though, has been to conclude America is weak and retreating, followed by their escalated efforts to make their own appeasement deal with Tehran.
Third, the same is true for Syria, where American efforts at conciliation have emboldened Damascus and demoralized the Lebanese moderates resisting Syrian domination.
One can only hope that Bush and his administration consider the effect of what it does on the Middle East. But the following points are also very much in the interests of both the United States and Bush personally:
- Don't promise to resolve the AI conflict in 2008. It isn't going to happen and these words will be used to ridicule you in 2009. Remember over-promising doesn't build confidence but makes the radicals more eager to sabotage you and the moderates more passive, letting you do all the work.
- Use the leverage you have with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah to press them toward changing their ways. Giving billions of dollars with no strings attached is a formula for not only wasting the money but ensuring that the PA is thrown out by Hamas. Demand that the PA do something about stopping terror and ending incitement to murder Israelis.
- Keep the U.S.-Israel relationship not only strong but on a proper basis. Sacrificing Israel's proper defensive needs will not make anyone else in the region love you and will certainly not make the radicals less popular or aggressive.
- Don't fool around with the nonsensical idea that Iran and Syria can be split. The alliance benefits both of them too much and, after all, they think they are winning. And if you try and fail to manipulate those who are far better at manipulating the West, you will only persuade the next president to give up even more in exchange for nothing.
- Before you leave office, precisely because you believe that the situation in Iraq is improving, begin a transition to the next step. Give your successor the basis for continuing that strategy. If you don't, the next president will probably be tempted to withdraw as proof of doing a better job than you did.
- Remember that "Europe" is not the same as it was a year or two ago, especially given the election of President Francois Sarkozy in France, along with good cooperation with Britain and Germany. The United States can work with Europe on a tougher policy toward Syria, Iran, and Hamas in a way not possible in the past.
- While of course your goal is to build an alliance with relatively moderate (relative to Syria at least) Arab states, don't ever forget that these regimes will do as little as possible to help you. And do keep in mind that it is their own survival, not the Arab-Israeli conflict, which motivates them, despite what they (or the State Department) might say.
- Whatever you do, don't sell out Lebanon. The Lebanese government and its supporters are the most courageous and moderate regime in the Arab world today. Lebanon's survival free of control by Iran, Syria, and Hizballah is one of the most vital U.S. interests. And Lebanon's fall is the worst defeat in the region you could suffer in the next year.
- Keep up your deep-seated moral conviction that it is both wrong and dangerous to whitewash terrorists driven by an aggressive ideology into misguided souls who must be won over by kindness and confidence-building measures.
- Don't forget that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous scenario in the Middle East for U.S. interests. Not only might Tehran use the bombs but a nuclear-armed Iran would lead the region just as Saddam Hussein would have done if he'd kept Kuwait back in 1991.
- Finally, and ultimately most important, talk to your probable successors and be persuasive. One of the most disheartening aspects of U.S. foreign policy is the failure to transmit experience properly. Many people still don't understand that your failure to intervene energetically on Arab-Israeli issues in your first term was because you saw what happened to President Bill Clinton and remembered what he told you.
In the eyes of many or most of the American people, perhaps that is what the November 2008 election will show, the Iraq invasion was a big mistake. Far worse, everything learned from the Cold War's end, 1991 victory over Saddam Hussein, failed Arab-Israeli peace process, and September 11 is in danger of being forgotten.
Antagonism over Iraq should not be allowed to discredit the need for a strong policy that is willing to confront extremist and terrorist forces. For you, the best-case outcome would be having a legacy judged on that basis, as the president who stood up after September 11 to the challenge of a new anti-American threat. Adopting some of your foes' worst ideas will neither win their respect nor help the Middle East.
Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online at: http://www.gloriacenter.org/index.asp?pname=submenus/articles/index.asp.
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