On the face of it, George Bush's foreign policy is extremely controversial, even within the US. Brent Scowcroft, dean of the "realist" school and close adviser to Bush's father, is bitterly opposed to it, as is a good chunk of the American electorate. All this is strange since, structurally speaking, there is a much greater consensus now regarding the war against militant Islam than there was during the Cold War, or even just before World War II.
Throughout the half-century stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union, there were two fundamentally opposed schools of thought about the conflict. One side thought the Soviets could be accommodated and that most, if not all, of the conflict was due to misunderstandings that could be worked out. The other believed in "peace through strength," which meant that Soviet aggression could either be deterred and contained (the "realist" school) or, more radically, that the Soviets could be relegated to the "ash heap of history," as Ronald Reagan put it in his 1982 Westminster speech.
"The West won't contain communism," Reagan said in 1981, eight years before the Berlin Wall fell. "It will transcend communism. It won't bother to... denounce it; it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written."
This was considered as absurd and utopian then as Bush's talk of democracy for the Arab world is now. Yet while Bush is widely considered not to be anchored in reality, there is a striking contrast between the debate now and in Reagan's time.
Now the accommodationist school, mainstream during the Cold War, is on the fringe. Few people are seriously suggesting that al-Qaida has grievances that should be addressed. No one is suggesting handing the Islamists territory, as was done to appease Hitler.
A measure of the difference is that many of Bush's liberal opponents actually advocate putting more troops in Iraq. They see the Iraq war as misdirection of effort, rather that arguing that any common ground could have been found with Saddam.
It is only lately, in fact, that the "anti-war" school - misnamed as it was during the Cold War, as if whether to be at war was a choice of the West - has been tilting toward believing that Iraq is unwinnable and Iran should be accommodated. This is a worrisome sign that the Cold War pattern is returning - a mold in which the debate is not over how to win, but whether victory is even an option.
The continued advance of democracy in Iraq, with this week's passage of a new constitution in which Iraqis once again risked their lives to reject terrorism, could begin to turn this debate around. But something else is necessary besides an improved situation on the ground. The war has gotten off track, but not in the manner critics usually imagine. Bush's problem is not too much ambition, but too much concentrated in one place.
While it is true that Bush, in his second inaugural address, spoke of ending tyranny everywhere, in practice his foreign policy is perceived, both by proponents and by the terrorists seeking to defeat it, as being focused on bringing democracy to Iraq. By placing the goal of democracy at the center, Bush has set the bar high, but mainly in one country. Remaining rogue regimes seem to be largely off the hook while the fighting in Iraq rages.
THIS MAY seem like a strange thing to write in a week in which the US is seeking UN Security Council sanctions against Syria in the wake of the Mehlis report implicating that regime in the Hariri assassination. But this is the exception that proves the rule. The US is not systematically seeking a change in the international rules of the game.
Even in the case of Syria, the US-backed draft UN resolution seems to be focused on gaining access to the Syrian officials named by Mehlis, not at punishing Syria for supporting terrorism against Israel and in Iraq.
The Bush administration has removed two terrorist regimes but, oddly enough, has not persistently sought an across-the-board change in approach toward regimes that support terrorism. How can it be that, four years after 9/11, there has been no attempt to impose international sanctions on Iran and Syria, not to mention other implicated countries like Saudi Arabia, for supporting or abetting terrorism?
The presumed refusal of Europe to go along is an explanation, but not an excuse. The Mehlis report demonstrated that even a relatively difficult-to-trace act of aggression - the Hariri assassination - could be pinned on the Syrian regime, given a modicum of international determination.
The US should be seeking a similar report documenting something much easier to prove: that the Iranian and Syrian governments are systematically engaged in illegal international aggression.
If such a report is not being sought, we all know why: because some combination of the US, UK, France and Germany are not ready to hold these regimes accountable for their crimes.
There is no reason why the situation in Iraq should be allowed to distract from such a project. On the contrary, Iranian and Syrian involvement in Iraq would be a central count in the charge sheet against those regimes. Putting these regimes on the defensive - as holding them accountable for aggression would do - is central to winning in Iraq as well.
For all the talk about a "war against terrorism," it is hard to argue that such a war is being fought seriously when some regimes still support terror as obviously as they did before 9/11 and pay no price for it.
This is not a game of evidence, as if the US needs a "smoking gun" to prove to France and Germany what these regimes are up to. It is a matter of persuading those governments that the time has come to use non-military means, at least, to impose high costs on these regimes for what everyone knows they are doing.
- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11