The Region: The president's last year in office

Talk to your probable successors - and be persuasive. Antagonism over Iraq should not be allowed to discredit the need for a strong policy that confronts extremist forces.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit:)
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
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 choose his successor? The answer could not possibly be objectively clearer, yet subjectively more obscure. The gap between the real Middle East versus 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 hailed throughout America and the West as a big success. In the region, however, less than one-fifth of Israelis and Palestinians thought it had done any good. People here knew better. Second, many in the US have hailed what seems to be a de-escalation of American pressure on Iran over the nuclear issue. The response by Gulf Arab states, though, has been to conclude that America is weak and retreating, followed by their escalated efforts to make their own appeasement deal with Teheran. Third, the same is true for Syria, where American efforts at conciliation have emboldened Damascus and demoralized the Lebanese moderates resisting Syrian domination. THE FOLLOWING points are very much in the interests of both the United States and Bush personally: • Don't promise to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict in 2008. It isn't going to happen, and these words will be used to ridicule you in 2009. 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 and Fatah to press them toward changing their ways. Giving billions of dollars with no strings attached is a formula not only for wasting the money, but for ensuring that the PA is thrown out by Hamas. Demand that the PA do something about stopping terror and ending incitement. • Keep the US-Israel relationship strong. Sacrificing Israel's defensive needs will not make anyone else in the region love you and will 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 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, especially given the election of 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 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, that 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 Hizbullah is one of the most vital US 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 wrong and dangerous to whitewash terrorists driven by an aggressive ideology as being 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 US interests. Not only might Teheran 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 US foreign policy is the failure to properly transmit experience. Many people still don't understand that your failure to intervene energetically on Arab-Israeli issues for your first term is because you saw what happened to president Bill Clinton and remembered what he told you. IN THE EYES of many Americans, what the November 2008 election will show is that the invasion of Iraq was a big mistake. Far worse, everything learned due to the Cold War's end - the victory over Saddam Hussein in 1991, the failed Arab-Israeli peace process, and September 11 is in jeopardy of being forgotten. Antagonism over Iraq should not be allowed to discredit the need for a strong policy that confronts extremist 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 enemies' worst ideas will neither win their respect nor help the Middle East. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest book is The Truth About Syria.