Bush's marred legacy in the Mideast

Realism has descended on the US like a ton of bricks. The strategic consensus is to consolidate whatever ground it holds.

Gulf News

It is the last year of George W. Bush's presidency, and one wonders what legacy he will leave behind in the Middle East? The region, the Achilles' heel of the Bush presidency, is so important that he devoted about 40 per cent of his last State of the Union address to it.

The speech came on the heels of his recent eight-day trip to the region, which showed the president's new gumption for realism. The fata morgana of spreading freedom and democracy was relegated to the backburner. The trip was Alexander Haig redux: Reagan's first Secretary of State had come to the region in 1981 to forge what was called "the Strategic Consensus".

The Reagan administration viewed the Carter administration's efforts to bring about a peaceful settlement in the Middle East as wrongheaded. To them, the Soviet Union's aggressive pursuit exemplified by the invasion of Afghanistan should be the greatest concern to all the parties in the region. Moderate Arab states should put the kibosh on their conflict with Israel: the Strategic Consensus, hence, was to bring them together in one front against the USSR and its bold moves in the region.

Likewise, Bush arrived in the region with much fanfare. If he had a choice, he would avoid the Holy Land, like he has done with Iraq. The president knows that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, he has a lot of enemies and his friends do not like him that much either, never mind the dinning, dancing, and dallying.

He pleaded his case to his friends; ironically, friends he vowed to displace in his quest to democratise the region. The mantra was that "Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the know-how to make a nuclear weapon." The new Strategic Consensus is to isolate Iran, and cut it to size. Arabs should put their differences with Israel aside, and face the Persian music, so to speak.

But Israelis are tough customers: They would never give a respite to an American president who assumes the role of viceroy for the region. No sooner had Bush left the Holy Land than the Israelis escalated their campaign against Gaza - a strip of land that makes Soweto under apartheid look like a felicitous dwelling. Whether intended or not, the strangulation of Gaza was perceived in Arab capitals, and streets, as having Bush's imprimatur. That, and the National Intelligence Estimate that exonerated Iran of having a nuclear weapon programme, made the "Strategic Consensus" a hard-sell. Polite to a fault, Arabs probably listened attentively to the president while mulling over who'd be the next master of the White House: when he said Iran, probably they were thinking McCain, and when he said nuclear bomb they were hearing Obama, or for that matter anyone. The denizens of this region are asking are we better off now or eight years ago!

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was fond of volubly asserting that "For 60 years my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East - and we achieved neither." But for the past seven years whatever stability the region obtained has frittered away for democracy that has proven to be a will-o'-the-wisp.

No end in sight

Realism has descended on the administration like a ton of bricks. The elections in Palestine led to Hamas's victory. Iraq, at best, is muddling through, some say towards disaster. Lebanon is teetering on the brink of collapse. The peace process is a process alright, but with no end in sight. Afghanistan is regressing by the day. The war on terrorism hardly eviscerated the phenomenon. All that, and they broke the bank for good measure.

The strategic consensus, thence, is to consolidate whatever ground the US holds in the region and reestablish its credibility with foes and friends. A re-prioritisation of the regional order: from conflict among friends to coalescing against foes. But according to Marc Lynch of George Washington University "the US strategy on Iran is crumbling.. . America's attempt to shore up containment against Iran increasingly seems to be yesterday's battle".

One would be remiss if s/he does not detect the change from unilateralism, the hallmark of Bush administration, to multilateralism. The discussion, all the same, begs the question: why did such grandiose ideals of democratising, developing, and defending the Middle East met such a fate, which would mar the Bush legacy in the region? One answer comes form the neocons' favourite Middle East specialist, Fouad Ajami, in his article "The Clash".

Ajami seems to argue that the failure is due to Islam's intrinsic hostility (my words) to Western Civilisation. "Nearly 15 years on, Huntington's thesis about a civilisational clash seems more compelling to me than the critique I provided at that time," he avers mordantly.

Another explanation had been provided by the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He had written that "As for incompetence, rarely have such high-flown visions been pursued with such gross negligence, mismanagement, and lack of foresight. The habits of mind of a faith-based presidency are theological and disdain practicalities. What Republicans call 'values' may be popular in the Bible Belt, but they do not ensure success in Iraq."

Finally, a third more plausible understanding of Bush's tragedy in the Middle East is that the idealistic impulse in foreign policy is well-grounded in American history, and deep-rooted in its political culture. It is however - to borrow Robert Parry's words - "the hard-nosed security and economic interests", that vitiate these ideals.

Washington's habitual negligence to negotiate the tension between the two is at the bottom of the failure; Bush merely took it to a different level.

Dr Albadr S.S. Alshateri is a UAE political analyst and writer.