Commentary

Bush Visits His “New” Middle East

As he was drowning politically and personally in scandals that would lead eventually to a humiliating resignation from office, in June 1974 President Richard Nixon took a triumphant seven-day trip to four Arab states and Israel, where, as Time put it, “the huzzas and the hosannas fell like sweet rain.” The magazine suggested that, “coming out of the parched Watergate wasteland of Washington, the praise and the cheers of multitudes were welcome indeed, particularly since each stop, each spectacle, was beamed in living color back to the living rooms of the U.S.”

Following on the flight-route of another unpopular and disgraced Republican White House occupant, President George W. Bush decided that since it was raining in the Midwest, in the form of his falling approval ratings, it was time to seek the sunshine of the Middle East, hoping that the television images of his five-day excursion to the region would help salvage his personal and political legacy in the Midwest and the rest of the United States.

Bush’s legacy includes his ambitious strategy of transforming the Middle East — the destination of his trip — and making it safe for U.S. interests and values. Indeed, Bush’s tour to the region took place a month after the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, which was supposed to mark the launching of the Freedom Agenda in the Middle East. Bush and his neoconservative advisors had promised that ousting Saddam Hussein would lead to the establishment of a stable and prosperous democracy in Mesopotamia that would serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East, creating the conditions for the emergence of a pro-U.S. liberal political system in the Arab World and for the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict (“the road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad,” as the neoconservatives said).

But if the Nixon-in-the-Mideast spectacle and the accolades in Jerusalem and Egypt couldn’t help warm the political weather in Washington and strengthen Nixon’s hand in his battle to stave off impeachment, it is very doubtful that Bush’s May 13–18 trip to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, a follow-up to his trip to the same three countries and others in the region in January, will produce more than photo ops.

If anything, Bush’s visit helped to highlight the gap between his grand designs for the Middle East and the depressing reality on the ground: the continuing violence and political and economic disintegration of Iraq; the failure to bring about an end to the Arab-Jewish dispute in the Holy Land; and the most dramatic development that has taken place since the removal of Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Iraq — the increasing power of Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.

“What we’re seeing here is, in a sense, the growing — the birth pangs of a new Middle East, and whatever we do, we have to be certain that we’re pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old Middle East,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her effort to end the Israel-Hezbollah War in July 2004. During his visit this month to the Middle East, Bush had the opportunity to observe the contours of this “new” Middle East, which looks very different from the way he, Rice, and the rest of the neo-imperialists and democratic crusaders in Washington had envisioned it.

There was an element of chutzpah in Bush’s assertion before the Israeli Knesset that diplomatic engagement with Iran — an idea proposed by, among others, his own Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Bush family’s close aide, former Secretary of State James Baker — could threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East and strengthen Iran. In reality, it’s the policies that Bush has pursued, including the refusal to open a dialogue with Tehran, that have been responsible for the weakening of the U.S. position in the region and the increasing influence of Iran.

Hence, the ouster of Saddam Hussein helped open a Pandora’s box of sectarian discord between the Shiites and the Sunnis in Iraq, igniting the current violence between the ethnic and religious groups in the country and turning it into new safe heaven for terrorists from around the Middle East. Al Qaeda was able to establish its presence in Iraq only in the aftermath of the collapse of Hussein’s secular Baathist regime, which had been one of the fiercest foes of Osama bin Laden’s radical Islamist terrorist group.

At the same time, the fall of Hussein’s Sunni-led Iraq, which had served as a counterbalance to the power of the Shiite-controlled regime in Tehran, ended up helping to strengthen the power of Iran in the Persian Gulf. The government in U.S.-liberated Baghdad, which is composed of Shiite political figures and groups with close ties to Iran and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, which represents the growing Shiite community in Lebanon, have become part of what the pro-U.S. Arab-Sunni regimes describe as a pro-Iran Shiite Crescent in the Middle East.

Indeed, future historians will probably conclude that the implementation of Bush’s neoconservative agenda in the Middle East — the toppling of Iraq’s secular Sunni regime; the resurgence of Iran and its Shiite allies; a series of U.S.-driven elections that strengthened the hand of Islamist parties in Iran, Lebanon, and Palestine; the breakdown in the Israel-Palestine peace process — provoked a set of powerful revolutionary changes that are challenging the post-Cold War status quo in the Middle East, and in a way that runs contrary to the interests of the United States and its traditional allies there.

That was certainly the message that Bush received from these allies during his stops in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, where there is clearly a sense of panic over growing indications that Iran’s Shiite allies are growing stronger and that the United States is losing its hegemonic position in the region. Bush’s failure to persuade the Saudis to bring down oil prices is just one example of the erosion in Washington’s ability to influence developments in the Middle East.

In Lebanon, the Western-backed government is fighting pro-Iran Hezbollah forces and seized control of much of Muslim west Beirut. Iran and its Shiite proxies have demonstrated that neither the Lebanese military nor the various militias representing the Sunni, Christian, and Druze communities have the power to disarm Hezbollah. The other side of the coin is that the Americans, the Europeans, and the Saudis who support Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora recognize that they don’t have the power to impose a settlement in Lebanon, and that the interest of Hezbollah, and by extension Iran and Syria, who support the Shiite militias, will have to be taken into consideration in any agreement to bring stability to the Levant.

The “new” Lebanon is one in which “the strongest group comprises Iranian- and Syrian-backed Islamist Shiites and their junior partners, Christian and Sunni Lebanese allies,” wrote Lebanese columnist Rami Khouri recently. “They will share power in a national unity government with fellow Lebanese who are friends, allies, dependents and proxies of the United States and Saudi Arabia.” Khouri told the Christian Science Monitor that “Bush and Rice singled out Lebanon as a poster child of their success” during the so-called Cedar Revolution that brought an end to the Syrian occupation of that country. “That makes the loss even bigger,” he added.

In Iraq, the U.S.-led offensive against the Shiite militia of anti-U.S. and pro-Iranian cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad’s Sadr City was suspended only after the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is controlled by Shiite parties, sent a mission to Tehran and requested Iran’s intervention to halt the fighting in the Shiite neighborhood. As with Lebanon, Iran demonstrated that it, not the United States, is the power broker in Iraq, where Iranian influence has been growing in the political, economic, and religious spheres. Ironically, while Washington continues to accuse Tehran of assisting the Iraqi insurgents, the Maliki government maintains close ties to Iran’s leaders.

The worst-case scenario is that Iraq gradually becomes a satellite of Iran, which in turn could emerge as the hegemon in the Persian Gulf, able to exert enormous influence on the Saudis and the other pro-Western oil sheikdoms. These concerns were raised during Bush’s meeting with Saudi leaders, who don’t have the military capability to contain Iran’s rising power. And if Iran succeeds in acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, it would pose a threat not only to the Saudis and the other Sunni-Arab regimes, but also to Israel. While Bush discussed the issue of Iran during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli leaders, the main reason for his visit to Israel was to take part in celebrating its 60th birthday and to try to revive (once again) the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” In the speeches he made in Israel, Bush promoted (once again) his Freedom Agenda for the region. After praising “60 years of democracy in Israel,” he stressed that “what happened here is possible everywhere.”

But notwithstanding Bush’s public commitment to reviving Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which he reiterated during last year’s summit in Annapolis, Maryland, there is no indication that Israelis and Palestinians are closer to reaching an agreement to the principles that would guide a final accord. Olmert’s political power is now threatened by investigations into allegations of bribery, while the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas controls only the West Bank and remains in power thanks to the backing of Israel, the United States, and the European Union, which have rejected any negotiations with the Hamas movement that rules over Gaza.

Dramatizing the lack of progress on the Israel-Palestine front and the potential for a major war between Israel and Hamas, Palestinians in Gaza launched a large-scale rocket attack on an Israeli shopping mall while Bush was at a gala event in Israel. While many Israelis have hailed Bush as one of the most pro-Israel U.S. presidents, others point out that the stalemate in the peace process and the failure to implement a two-state solution — an Israel side-by-side with an independent Palestine — threatens Israel’s survival as a Jewish state, as more and more Palestinians will demand the creation of a single, bi-national state in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

Indeed, it is difficult to argue that Bush’s policies have advanced the long-term interests of Israel — or for that matter, those of the United States and its allies in the Middle East. That is the depressing reality that the White House and its neoconservative allies will face during the last six months of the Bush administration. It’s not surprising, therefore, that pundits have been speculating that the Americans and the Israelis, with tacit support from the Saudis and other Arab Sunni governments, might decide to take military action against Iran, as well as against Hezbollah and Hamas, before Bush leaves office as a way of reversing the regional rise in power of Tehran and its proxies.

According to an Israeli Army radio report quoted in the Jerusalem Post — and “flatly denied” by the White House — a “senior member” of Bush’s traveling entourage told officials in Jerusalem that Bush intended to attack Iran before the end of his term, but that Rice and Gates’s hesitation was holding up such action. At the same time, former CIA analyst Philip Giraldi reported recently on the American Conservative website that speculation in Washington was growing that the National Security Council has in principle agreed with plans to attack an Iranian camp where Iraqi insurgents are believed to be trained. Gates, however, counseled delaying any offensive action.

There are also growing indications that Israel was preparing for a massive military strike against the Hamas forces in Gaza, which could result in an invasion of that Palestinian territory by Israel. According to the Israeli press, Vice President Dick Cheney gave Israel a green light for such an operation during his last visit to the country. And interestingly enough, after expressing opposition to the opening of negotiations between Israel and Syria that could result in a peace agreement between the two countries, there are signs that the Bush administration is now supporting such an Israeli-Syrian dialogue, mediated by Turkey, as part of an effort to provide Damascus with incentives to end its partnership with Iran. The Americans and the Israelis are apparently hoping that co-opting Syria into the pro-U.S. coalition in the Middle East will weaken the power of Hezbollah, which receives military support from Iran via Syria.

These and other reports suggest that a new Middle Eastern war, pitting the United States, Israel, and other pro-U.S. players against Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, could take place before the November presidential election, a dramatic development that could affect the outcome of the race. But a U.S. military conflict with Iran would only speed up what would probably turn out to be the most dramatic makeover of the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Western takeover of the region after World War I.

As a result of these changes, it is possible that Iraq could break up into three mini-states, including a semi-independent Kurdish region, a Shiite area that under Iran’s sphere of influence, and a Sunni zone that would gravitate toward its Arab-Sunni neighbors led by Saudi Arabia. Many conditions for a de facto division of the country are already taking place through a process of ethnic cleansing, which explains why the violence seems to be going down. Some would argue that a civil war has already taken place and that mixed areas and neighborhoods are coming under the control of the Shiites or the Sunnis, with the Kurds enjoying almost complete political independence in northern Iraq.

What the next U.S. president will have to do is to try to formalize this Iraqi “soft partition” as part of a regional agreement that will involve the leading outside players — Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria — along the lines of the 1995 Dayton Agreement that led to the establishment of independent Bosnia and Herzegovina and the end of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.

But such an agreement will require a readjustment of U.S. policy in the Middle East to the new balance of power in the region — which the Bush administration helped to create — including a diplomatic dialogue with Iran (and Syria) and a willingness to cooperate with a more assertive Saudi Arabia. Unless the new administration take steps in that direction, the United States could find itself drawn into an even longer, costlier conflict — probably a Ten Year War — after which the United States, not unlike after five years of the Iraq War, would be less secure and with less influence in the Middle East and around the world.

Leon Hadar, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, is author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.