George W. Bush's policies toward the Middle East and Islam will loom large when historians judge his presidency. On the occasion of his concluding his 8-day, 6-country trip to the Middle East and entering his final year in office, I offer some provisional assessments.
His hallmark has been a readiness to break with long-established bipartisan positions and adopt stunningly new policies, and by late 2005 he had laid out his novel approach in four major areas.
Radical Islam: Prior to 9/11, American authorities viewed Islamist violence as a narrow criminal problem. Calling for a "war against terror" in September 2001, Bush broadened the conflict. Specifying the precise force behind terrorism peaked in October 2005, when he termed it "Islamic radicalism," "militant Jihadism," and "Islamo-fascism."
Pre-emptive war: Deterrence had long been the policy of choice against the Soviet Union and other threats, but Bush added a second policy in June 2002, pre-emption. U.S. security, he said, "will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives." Nine months later, this new doctrine served as his basis to invade Iraq and eliminate Saddam Hussein before the latter could develop nuclear weapons.
Arab-Israeli conflict: Bush avoided the old-style and counterproductive "peace process" diplomacy and tried a new approach in June 2003 by establishing the goal of "two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, in peace and security." In addition, he outlined his final-status vision, specified a timetable, and even attempted to sideline a recalcitrant leader (Yasir Arafat) or prop up a forthcoming one (Ehud Olmert).
Democracy: Deriding "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East" as a policy that "did nothing to make us safe," Bush announced in November 2003 "a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East," by which he meant pushing regimes to open up to citizen participation.
So much for intentions; how, in fact, have things worked out? At the end of his first term, I found that the Bush policies, other than the Arab-Israeli one, stood "a good chance of working." No longer. Today, I perceive failure in all four areas.
Bush's once-improved understanding of radical Islam has been reversed, to the point that he uses lengthy and inelegant euphemisms to avoid referring to the problem by name, relying on formulations like "a group of extremists who seek to use religion as a path to power and a means of domination."
George W. Bush and Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, hand in hand.
Pre-emptive war requires convincing observers that the pre-emption was indeed justified, something the Bush administration failed to do. Only half the American population and many fewer in the Middle East accept the need for invading Iraq, creating domestic divisions and external hostility greater than at any time since the Vietnam War. Among the costs: greater difficulty to take pre-emptive action against the Iranian nuclear program.
Bush's vision of resolving one century of Arab-Israeli conflict by anointing Mahmoud Abbas as leader of a Palestinian state is illusory. A sovereign "Palestine" alongside Israel would drain the anti-Zionist hatred and close down the irredentist war against Israel? No, the mischievous goal of creating "Palestine" will inspire more fervor to eliminate the Jewish state.
Finally, encouraging democracy is clearly a worthy goal, but when the Middle East's dominant popular force is totalitarian Islam, is it such a great idea to rush head-long ahead? Yet rushing ahead characterized Washington's initial approach – until the policy's damage to U.S. interests became too apparent to ignore, causing it largely to be abandoned.
At a time when George W. Bush arouses such intense vituperation among his critics, someone who wishes him well, like myself, criticizes reluctantly. But criticize one must; to pretend all is well, or to remain loyal to the person despite his record, does no one a favor. A frank recognition of mistakes must precede their repair.
I respect Bush's benign motivation and good intentions while mourning his having squandered a record-breaking 90 percent job-approval rating following 9/11 and his bequeathing to the next president a polarized electorate, a military reluctant to use force against Iran, Hamas ruling Gaza, an Iraqi disaster-in-waiting, radical Islam on the ascendant, and unprecedented levels of global anti-Americanism.
Conservatives have much work ahead to reconstruct their Middle East policy.