bush farewell press conference 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
Here is a politically incorrect assessment: Today President George W. Bush will hand over to his successor a Middle Eastern foreign policy outlook far brighter than the one he inherited from Bill Clinton. The 44th US president will have in the Gulf area and beyond what No. 43 so desperately missed: freedom of action to react to upcoming crises.
To anybody who looks at a map of the greater Middle East and who remembers what it looked like eight years ago, it is obvious. When President Bush took over the Oval Office, he found Washington's Middle Eastern policy locked in an unsustainable position: double containment of Iraq and Iran, with Islamic radicalism in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere festering in the background. The situation in Iraq was unfinished and untenable. Neither the no-fly zones in the Kurdish north and the Shi'ite south of the country nor the UN-imposed sanctions could be upheld much longer. Large contingents of US troops were tied up in neighboring Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Washington found itself in a fix: Those troops could not stay forever, but withdrawing them would be tantamount to handing triumph to Saddam Hussein on a silver platter.
Double containment of Iraq and Iran was unsustainable, but had to be sustained all the same. For eight long years president Clinton had not known what to do about Iraq and had opted for the easiest way out: doing nothing. After 9/11 that was not an option. Bush had to act and make an attempt at bringing a modicum of stability to the world's most unstable region.
EIGHT YEARS on, the US position in the Gulf looks much more manageable: Strenuous double containment of Iraq and Iran has given way to difficult but doable containment of Iran. Today, Iraq looks like the most promising country in the entire region. In Baghdad, the Arab world's only democratic government has gained authority throughout the country. Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds have looked into the abyss of civil war and wisely shrank back from the edge. Baghdad is running up a budget surplus of $70 million, which will render peaceful deal making among Iraq's tribes and religious factions easier. The country enjoys freedom of the press, and rebuilding is in full process.
On the oil market, Iraq has the potential to really make a difference. With 2.5 million barrels, production has already passed prewar levels. In a mid-term perspective, Iraq's oil output could easily reach 4 million barrels, says Prime Minister Nuri el-Maliki's chief oil adviser. Some 115 billion barrels of proven reserves make Iraq the world's third most important oil country. Experts believe its reserves may well be larger than those of Saudi Arabia. Either way, Iraq could surely outproduce Iran, today the world's third ranking oil exporter, or make up for Iran's oil production entirely, at least for some time, if such a need ever arose.
Iraq's success story is Bush's success story. And it is not just about Iraq alone. The war, which tragically cost the lives of so many valorous US servicemen and women, put al-Qaida on the run. By bleeding the ranks of foreign terrorists from Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, it took internal pressure off those very countries. Moreover, Bush's war on terror forced governments from Morocco to Pakistan to choose sides. For decades they preferred to pay ransom to Islamist elements within their borders. "You are either with us, or against us" - Bush's cold ultimatum put an end to that, most famously in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
IT DOES not take a rocket scientist to grasp the strategic value of the US position in Iraq: The country sits right in the middle of the so-called Middle Eastern arc of crises, reaching from Morocco to Pakistan. It borders on some of the most critical and crisis prone places of said arc: Jordan-Palestine, Syria-Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia. Afghanistan and Pakistan are just two check points away.
Due to extreme demographic pressure, almost all those countries are inherently unstable. Take the Islamic Republic of Pakistan: Since 1960 its population has doubled from 80 million to more than 160 million. Egypt's population nearly tripled from about 25 million in 1960 to 73 million today. Seventy percent of Iran's population of 67 million is younger than 30. Every year a full million young Iranians find themselves thrown onto a job market that cannot offer them anything. None of those and other tormented countries in the region can cope.
Demographic pressure alone makes for a fairly safe prediction: In the Middle East the moderate political players are unlikely to prevail; the fanatics and the radicals will. The next Middle Eastern crisis is bound to erupt, no matter what the US, or the Western World as a whole, does or does not do. But when it flares up, the US will be much better positioned to react to it, due to its firm position in Iraq. Europeans, who are much closer to possible crisis zones, will have to be grateful for the American presence in this geographical and political heartland of the Middle East. The credit for the West's wholly transformed strategic position in that region must go to President George W. Bush. Thank you, Mr. President.
The author is a Munich-based historian and journalist.