Half a decade after its conception, George W. Bush's diplomacy of utopia has been effectively pronounced dead, and - as if following the script of a particularly whimsical playwright - is now being readied for an unceremonious burial by its most enthusiastic undertaker: James Baker. The former secretary of state's recommendation, as co-chair of a bipartisan study group appointed by Bush himself, is that Washington now dialogue with Damascus and Teheran, even while it helplessly watches Iraq drown in its own blood. Translation: Classic Republican realism is back, post-9/11 Messianism is history. Worse yet, the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iraq and Syria, and the visit to Teheran by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, mean that much more than the mere removal of secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld has happened since Bush's recent electoral setback: What's happened is the tragic collapse of a very pretentious foreign policy. The old Axis-of-Evil rhetoric may still be nominally spoken, but the fact is that most of its targets have survived America's assault, which in turn has long lost its momentum. As the Baker diplomacy returns, vintage prewar Bush statements like "the United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," or "we can't stop short; if we stop now, leaving terror camps intact and terror states unchecked, our sense of security would be false and temporary" (both from the January '02 State of the Union address) suddenly sound painfully anachronistic. What, then, went wrong, and where can the US go from here? HISTORICALLY, the Democrats tended to be more idealistic in their foreign policies while the Republicans were more "strategic," in that they cared less about how a foreign regime behaved with its own citizens as long as it harmonized with the US. That is how Democrats Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter sought, respectively, to democratize Central Europe following World War I and humanize the Iranian Shah's treatment of Islamist dissidents, and that is how Republican Richard Nixon legitimized Red China and Ronald Reagan tolerated Augusto Pinochet. However, in the past half decade it was Bush the Republican who played the idealist with his quest to emancipate the Middle East, while the Democrats played the realists with their increasingly confident questioning of the Bush policy's feasibility. The roots of Bush's attitude are likely to produce some lively debates in the future. Yes, his Middle Eastern focus was obviously triggered by the 9/11 shock, but what drove it spiritually is less clear: Was it a religious conviction inspired by Evangelical Christianity, a political intuition dominated by freedom's defeat of communism, or a Texan rancher's impulsive wrath in the face of a highway robbery of his herd? Be the roots of the Bush diplomacy what they may, the roots of its failure are clear: conceit, ignorance and naivete. THINK OF Bush's first senior diplomat in Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremmer, who opened his introductory visit to Masoud Barazani by asking whose photo it was he saw dominating the Kurdish leader's office. As any student of Middle Eastern history could have told Bremmer, it was Barazani's father, Mustafa, the legendary rebel who spent half a century fighting for Kurdish independence. It boggles the mind to think that someone so ignorant of Iraq's past was actually assigned to build its future. Being so unfamiliar with the landscape, it is no wonder that America failed to brace for the guerrilla, ethnic and fundamentalist challenges that awaited it the morning after its conventional campaign's swift conclusion. Here in Israel such grim prospects were much more seriously appreciated, not because Israelis are smarter, but because two decades earlier they had been through a painfully similar experience in Lebanon. It wasn't popular to write this back then, but a week before America's invasion of Iraq this column ("What's Arabic for perestroika?" March 14, 2003) cautioned that America's moment was "as precarious as the French Revolutionaries' in 1793" when their Decree of Assistance and Fraternity "offered fellow Europeans help in overthrowing their rulers, only to later see their revolutionary cause lost to a reactionary restoration, and their innocence drowned in rivers of blood." My conclusion was that "in setting out to reshape the Mideast the US had better avoid that kind of conceit," and concede instead that democracy should be preached and financed, "but it should not be politically manipulated, let alone militarily imposed." And yet, even if its more sweeping aims proved unrealistic, ruling the Iraq campaign a failure at this stage may yet prove premature. SEVERAL THINGS have been accomplished in this war already, and no one will be able to take them away from its planners. First, a bloody dictator who attacked unprovoked three neighboring countries and mass murdered his own people was swept from power and brought to justice in his own people's court. Arab dictatorship may for now have survived freedom's progression, but Arab dictators will now bear in mind that there is only that much they can do with impunity. It was no coincidence that Muammar Gaddafi's surrender to America came literally days after he watched on TV the unshaven, disempowered and visibly frightened Saddam's extraction from his hideout pit. Secondly, a free Arab election was held, if even one which voters treated more like a census, whereby they effectively declared their ethnicity rather than make civic choices. Yes, ideally this election would have been the result of a more gradual educational process, perhaps beginning with mayoral elections and regional legislations, but the fact remains that the masses have had a taste of power and freedom as well as an opportunity to produce and consume a free press, and all these will be etched in their minds, even if authoritarianism returns. Lastly, the Kurdish autonomy that had been planted by the US already last decade was further consolidated, and emerged as an island of stability, freedom and prosperity. And yet, as they watch dumbfounded the scale of violence in the Shi'ite-Sunni war they have arguably triggered, and the utter failure of their original quest to not only free Iraq but to emancipate the entire Middle East, America's prophets of Messianic diplomacy would do well to humbly concede that democracy-from-above has failed. It's no shame. Napoleon, Trotsky and Che Guevara also failed to forcibly export their political ideas. Similarly, the prophets of realism will soon learn that peace, too, cannot be imposed from without. It follows that the only viable road for Washington to pursue right now in the Middle East is to back leaders who are at least prepared to embrace the Chinese model of "prosperity now, freedom later." The Arab world remains largely unemployed, under-educated and destitute. That is what inspires its religious fanaticism, that is what feeds Europe's festering slums, and that is today's No. 1 cause of global instability. Putting the Arab world to work and helping it build more kindergartens, schools, colleges, highways, railroads, hospitals, factories, banks, malls and airports is currently America's most practical option for long-term impact in the Middle East. In due course, such a policy will also deliver tolerance, democracy and peace.