Ten more months

While Bush may not win the War on Terror, he can give his successor a solid base from which to do so.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
In a speech yesterday marking the fifth anniversary of the operation that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, President George Bush reasserted the necessity and benefits of a decision that many Americans now regard as a mistake. Addressing the present, Bush said: "The surge has done more than turn the situation in Iraq around - it has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror. For the terrorists, Iraq was supposed to be the place where al-Qaida rallied Arab masses to drive America out. Instead, Iraq has become the place where Arabs joined with Americans to drive al-Qaida out." What is striking about this statement is not just its argument that Iraq represents a positive turning point in the war, but that there is a "broader war on terror." Judging from much of the American discourse, it would be easy to conclude that "the war" consists of Iraq alone. The looming threat from Iran has all but dropped off the American radar screen. Bush referred to Iran twice in passing. First he noted that many of the terrorists the US has been defeating in Iraq were "backed and financed and armed" by Teheran. Second, he pointed out that if the US precipitously withdrew or were defeated in Iraq, "Iran would be emboldened as well - with a renewed determination to develop nuclear weapons and impose its brand of hegemony across the Middle East." All this is true, but only serves to emphasize a strange disconnect. Bush is right and his critics are wrong on the debate over whether the removal of Saddam should be seen in the context of a wider war. But by this same token, if the US fails to prosecute that wider war - the central challenge of which is to prevent the current Iranian regime from going nuclear - and if this failure can be traced to the war in Iraq, then that war was a failure, too. Such a failure would be on two levels: if Iran went nuclear, it is likely that US advances in Iraq would eventually be reversed by the "emboldened" Iran of which Bush speaks. Secondly, a resurgent Iran would be a tremendous setback for the struggle against totalitarian Islamism, one that would reverberate on the global stage at least as negatively as an American defeat in Iraq. Put simply, winning in Iraq is no substitute for winning against Iran. Indeed, winning against Iran is necessary for winning in Iraq, and elsewhere over the long term. Ignoring Iran will not make it go away. We understand that it is inconvenient for Bush to highlight the fact that he has punted the Iranian issue to the next administration. But even in the Iraqi context, Iran cannot be obscured. It is as if Bush has decided to focus on the dragons he has slain and deserves great credit for slaying, while papering over the fact that the largest and most dangerous dragon of all has gotten, and is getting, stronger on his watch. But what, if anything, can Bush do at this late date to ensure that his legacy is not a world that is more threatened and in which all his achievements are in great danger of unraveling? In his last 10 months in office, Bush can still take concrete steps to restore and increase the momentum against the Iranian regime, momentum that was largely dissipated by the bizarre intelligence report issued by his administration at the end of last year. He could impose sanctions on foreign violators of existing dormant US anti-Iran sanctions laws. Then he could go to Europe and point out the obvious: What matters is not how much Europe clucks and frets over Iran, but whether Europe imposes sanctions tough enough to make Iran back down. Next, Bush could initiate actions in international forums to punish Iran for incitement to genocide and for supporting terrorism, in addition to its defiance on the nuclear issue. Finally, Bush could meet with Iranian dissidents as a signal of stepped-up support for the Iranian people in their struggle to free themselves from a tyrannical regime that oppresses them and threatens the world. All this would demonstrate that Bush meant it when he said that "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." While even with all this effort he might not succeed in fulfilling this pledge on his watch, he will at least have given his successor a solid base from which to do so.