Interesting Times: How Bush can save himself

No nation will stick its neck out for a policy that will never be tough enough to succeed.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
The future of the world hinges on a single question: is Bush I back? If so, we're toast, and I don't just mean Israel. Though Bush's nomination of Robert Gates, Bush senior's CIA director, as his new defense chief sparks the question, the issue is not personnel, but policy. Has the electoral "thumpin" Bush has taken on Iraq driven him to scuttle his own doctrine and revert to the pre-9/11 policy that he has so cogently discredited? Throughout the decade before 9/11, rogue states and the terrorists they harbored escalated their attacks on the US. The first bombing at the World Trade Center, the destruction of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack on the USS Cole, the humiliation in Somalia, the transformation of Afghanistan into an al-Qaida base camp, none of these woke America from its slumber. The policy of terrorism as a police problem, rather than confronting the states behind it, continued. Days after 9/11, Bush made a fundamental break with the previous policy. Henceforth, rogue states would be held accountable for supporting terrorism, especially if they are developing weapons of mass destruction. This new doctrine, applied in Afghanistan and Iraq, is now presumed to have bogged down before reaching the country whose threat most fits the profile: Iran. The mullahs are supporting more terrorism in more places, are more ambitious, and are closer to obtaining nuclear weapons than either Afghanistan or Iraq were. If the Bush Doctrine does not apply to Iran, it doesn't exist. The most straightforward explanation for the Gates nomination is that Bush is burying the doctrine that bears his name. The 2004 Council on Foreign Relations report on Iran that Gates coauthored with Zbigniew Brzezinski now reads as a self-parody of the school that put its faith in Iranian "moderates," opposes confrontation, and believes in the power of direct negotiations to achieve core American interests. If Bush were about to lead the world in confronting Iran, why bring someone into the Pentagon who advocates an opposite course? But let us say, as some insiders still maintain, that Bush has a record of setting his own policy, and that Gates' views say nothing about where Bush is going on Iran. How would Bush go about turning around the current presumption that Iran is unstoppable? It is this sense of inevitability of the coming Iranian bomb that is Bush's most immediate obstacle. Every day that the US allows Europe to take the lead on Iran policy, the assumption that nothing serious will be done takes deeper root, which in turn makes it harder to change course. No nation will stick its neck out for a policy that will never be tough enough to succeed. Exhibited weakness tends to feed on itself. Fortunately, Bush himself has illustrated the way out of such a vicious cycle. IN JUNE 2002, as Bush was laying the groundwork to confront Saddam Hussein, the US faced a similar problem. Yasser Arafat had the US over a barrel: the more he attacked Israel, the more Israel had to show "restraint" in order not to harm American coalition building efforts, and the more pressure came from Europe to "deliver" Israel in exchange for support on Iraq. Bush was expected to turn up the heat on Israel, which was under an almost weekly assault of suicide bombings. Instead, he did nearly the opposite of what Europe demanded and placed the blame for the conflict entirely on Arafat's shoulders, and urged the Palestinians to oust him. The result was immediate. Suddenly, the bombings that had been an asset became a liability, as they served to prove Bush's point. If the violence escalated, the pressure would increase on the Palestinians, not on Israel and the US. Europe, though shocked and appalled, could not bring itself to defend Arafat and began promoting the idea of Palestinian prime minister to shift power away from him. The road map, born of the Bush speech, was a far cry from the unequivocal stance he had taken, but was an even further cry from what those pressing to blame Israel had advocated. Most importantly, the ability of radical forces to distract the US from acting in Iraq had been neutralized. BUSH CAN do the same thing now. On Monday, Tony Blair said "a major part of the answer to Iraq lies not in Iraq itself but outside it, in the whole of the region where the same forces are at work, where the roots of this global terrorism are to be found." He advocated a "'whole Middle East' strategy" that would "start with Israel/Palestine. ... We should unite all moderate Arab and Muslim voices behind a push for peace not only in those countries [Israel and Lebanon] but also in Iraq." Though Blair may have something different in mind, Bush could take this as an opening for a wider version of his June 2002 speech, urging the Arab world to start proving that it is truly ready to accept Israel's right to exist. Rather than waiting for the Palestinians, who are obviously incapable on their own of ending their war with Israel, the Arab states must take basic steps, such as talking with Israelis face-to-face in Jerusalem and their capitals. Even if Arab leaders balked, such a speech would immediately shift the burden of peace onto their shoulders, transforming the peace process into an asset for the US and Israel, rather than a club in the hands of the Arab states and Europe. Bush's reclaiming of the initiative would have positive repercussions for Iran and Iraq policy as well. Radical forces would be on the defensive, and Bush could continue to press his advantage by explaining the full stakes of a nuclear Iran for Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, the Arab world and Europe. If Bush follows Gates, Iran will be Bush's North Korea - the nation that went nuclear, or became unstoppable, on his watch. If Bush rediscovers his own model of moral clarity, he can turn around crumbling policies toward Iran, Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict. This lame duck still has the power to save his presidency and the world.