Commentary

Miracles Are Unlikely in Bush’s Middle East Gospel

By Charles V. Peña
This article appeared in the Daily Star (Lebanon), December 28, 2004.

A week after the U.S. presidential election, Secretary of State Colin Powell - often considered the moderate and realist in the Bush administration’s first term - defended President George W. Bush’s foreign policy record and said he “is not going to … trim his sails or pull back. It’s going to be a continuation of his principles, his policies, his beliefs.” At the beginning of December, in Canada, Bush declared that the election was an endorsement of his foreign policy, especially the doctrine of preemption against gathering threats. He also reiterated his vision of spreading democracy in the Middle East. So what should we expect there during the next four years?

In Iraq, more than 18 months have passed since Bush declared “mission accomplished,” but the conflict is still unfinished business. Re-taking Fallujah in November was more about real estate than realizing military or political-strategic objectives. Public enemy number one in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was not captured or killed. And it would seem that the vast majority of the 5,000-6,000 insurgents alleged to be in Fallujah simply ran away to fight another day. Indeed, even as victory was being declared, insurgents struck in Mosul and Samarra. More recently, there were back-to-back suicide bombings inside Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Iraq has come to resemble the arcade game Whack-A-Mole, where every time you hit a mole as it pops out of a hole another one pops up out of a different hole.

Despite the inability of the American military to put down the insurgency, the Iraqi elections in January are still likely to take place. In fact, the U.S. has almost no choice but to hold elections - even if many Sunnis boycott them and if some segments of the population are unable to vote because of the violence. If elections are not held as promised, the majority Shiites will have every reason to more actively oppose the U.S. occupation and the interim Iraqi government, this time also using violence. Of course, elections are no guarantee of peace and stability either.

The outgoing CIA Baghdad station chief’s assessment, as recently reported in the media, was that the security situation in Iraq is likely to deteriorate unless the new Iraqi government can assert its authority. But if 150,000 well-trained American troops cannot impose security and stability on Iraq, what are the realistic prospects that half-trained heavily-infiltrated Iraqi security forces can do a better job? The fact that the Iraqi National Guard and police are regular targets of insurgent attacks, and reports that half or more of Iraqi policemen don’t show up for duty aren’t cause for optimism. So, then, the question becomes whether the administration will increase U.S. forces in Iraq. But that step runs the risk of increasing the already substantial anti-American sentiment and expanding the insurgency.

Increasingly, Iraq looks like a no-win situation. Barring an unforeseen miracle, the conflict there is an albatross that will likely hang around the administration’s neck for the next four years.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush has said (with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his side) that he would work toward “a just and peaceful resolution … based on two democratic states - Israel and Palestine - living side-by-side in peace and security.” But like every administration since Lyndon Johnson’s, the Bush administration is not likely to be successful. That’s not because of a lack of sincerity, a good plan, or hard effort, but because a true and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be imposed by an outside power - especially one that most people in the Arab world do not see as an honest broker. For an accord to be reached, both sides have to want peace more than everyone else.

There is some glimmer of hope from the Palestinian side. Mahmoud Abbas, the frontrunner to succeed Yasser Arafat, has called for an end to the armed intifada. But this is not a popular view with everybody and, so far, Abbas has not been able to rein in the militants.

Even if Abbas is able to stop the violence, there remain the issues of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories and the right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced by the creation of Israel. And if these difficult issues can be resolved, there is still the question of Jerusalem, a city considered holy to both Jews and Palestinians - with neither side willing to concede control to the other.

So, as in the case of Iraq, it would seem that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would also take a miracle.

In Iran, given that American troops are currently bogged down in next-door Iraq, realism and prudence would dictate that military action is unlikely. Indeed, according to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, an American attack against Iran is “inconceivable.” But it would be a mistake to presume that a military option is completely out of the question. Indeed, it may be more likely than not.

Bush named Iran as part of his “axis of evil” and has used rhetoric that is eerily similar to what he said about Iraq before launching the war there. Even though the U.K., Germany and France have reached an agreement with Iran to temporarily halt its uranium enrichment activities, Bush has said, “the only good deal is one that’s verifiable.” If one believes a Washington Post report that the administration tapped International Atomic Energy Agency director general Mohammed al-Baradei’s phone, this suggests the U.S. doesn’t trust his institution’s ability to verify a nuclear deal. Further evidence of the administration’s lack of faith in any agreement with Iran was a Los Angeles Times report that at a fall meeting with European allies to hammer out an approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Undersecretary of State John Bolton refused to back European negotiations with Iran and insisted that Iran should be brought before the UN Security Council to condemn its nuclear weapons program.

Finally, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith - considered one of the architects of the administration’s Iraq policy - told The Jerusalem Post: “I don’t think that anybody should be ruling in or ruling out anything while we are conducting diplomacy.” All the writing on the wall doesn’t mean military action against Iran is certain, but it may take a miracle to hold back the dogs of war.

In the gospel according to John, Jesus was able to perform three miracles: giving a blind man sight, walking on water and raising Lazarus from the dead. Anything resembling success in the Middle East will also require three miracles, but don’t expect any during Bush’s second mandate.

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.