US President George W. Bush has six weeks left in power. If he acts fast, that may be enough time to secure his place in history – at least in terms of the Middle East.
Bush's initial reactions to the Sept. 11 attacks were a rare display of political and intellectual courage. Gazing at the rubble of the World Trade Center, Bush recognized that the primary failure of US policy towards the Arab and Islamic world until that day was found in the predisposition of his predecessors to slavishly maintain a Faustian bargain with tyrannical Arab regimes in the interest of maintaining "stability." That bargain committed the US to providing military assistance and political backing to authoritarian regimes throughout the Arab and Islamic world in exchange for cheap oil for the West.
What Sept. 11 showed Bush was that the "stability" the US had purchased was an illusion. As the US propped up dictators, their subjects fumed under the chains of state terror and economic privation. For millions of frustrated young men, the only outlet for resistance open to them is the mosque. There they are indoctrinated in the ways of jihad and mobilized to fight for Islamic global domination.
In the months that followed the attacks, Bush radically changed the course of US Middle East policy by pledging American support for the democratization of the Arab and Islamic world. Bush announced that from then on, the US would no longer blindly follow its duplicitous client states but would support voices of democracy and freedom in the Middle East no matter where they came from.
Bush's message did nothing to endear him to the likes of the Saudis and the Egyptians. The Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference attacked Bush's freedom agenda and indignantly argued that it would be impossible for them to reform their ways for as long as the US maintained its support for Israel – the sole democracy in the region.
THEN THERE was Europe. Until Bush came around, Europeans had delighted in showing off their false multicultural and humanitarian credentials built on buying off terrorists, attacking Israel and giving the Palestinians billions of euros in foreign aid. Bush's freedom agenda exposed their deceit and their cowardice. They were appalled.
Implicit in Bush's view was the understanding that the US's most stable allies – and indeed only stable allies – are fellow democracies. And this understanding necessarily led Bush to the conclusion that Israel is the US's most dependable and valuable ally in the Middle East.
Bush's views were nothing short of sacrilege not only for the Arabs and the Europeans, but for Washington's foreign policy establishment, headquartered at the State Department and the CIA. For the men and women of these bureaucracies, Bush's recognition that the Arab regimes they championed were the primary source of regional instability and anti-Americanism was a repudiation of everything they worked for. More disgraceful, in their view, was his open embrace of Israel – the mortal foe of all their Arab friends – as the US's most trustworthy and strategically vital ally in the region.
All these forces joined together almost immediately to scuttle Bush's freedom agenda for the Arab world. In country after country, Bush's message of democracy was watered down to nothingness.
In post-Saddam Iraq, rather than embrace democratic champions like Ahmed Chalabi, the foreign policy bureaucracy in Washington foisted strongman and former Ba'athist Ayad Allawi on the newly liberated country. The State Department and the CIA allowed Iran and Syria to freely subvert Bush's freedom agenda by buying politicians, building militias and fomenting the insurgency.
Iraq was Bush's central foreign policy initiative. And it is for his work in Iraq that he will chiefly be remembered. Today the battle for Iraq is all but won. But it was only won after Bush realized in 2006 that if he continued following the advice of those who rejected his goal of a free Middle East, the US would be forced from Iraq in defeat.
IN LEBANON in March 2005, when more than a million pro-democracy Lebanese citizens staged the Cedar Revolution and ousted Syrian forces from their country, Bush's battle for freedom was finally joined by the Arabs themselves. To secure the gains of the Cedar Revolution, Bush needed to work with Israel to protect the pro-Western Siniora government.
As Israel's failure to defeat Hizbullah in 2006, and as the US's championing of the UN ceasefire resolution which facilitated Hizbullah's takeover of Lebanon showed, neither Israel nor the US was willing to protect Lebanon's democrats. Today, with the forces of democracy defeated after Hizbullah's violent takeover of the government in May, rather than decry this state of affairs and work to undo it, Bush has chosen to deny it. And not only does he deny it, he exacerbates it. Bush welcomed the "stability" that Hizbullah's takeover has facilitated. And today he is arming the Hizbullah-dominated Lebanese army with tanks and other heavy arms. That is, in Lebanon, Bush has adopted the very same Faustian bargain he rejected in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Bush's confused and self-defeating policies towards Lebanon are a direct consequence of his policies towards Israel and the Palestinians. In 2002, Bush recognized that the root of the Palestinian conflict with Israel is not Israel's continued control over Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem but the absence of Palestinian leadership willing to live at peace with Israel. Moreover, he recognized that the US's primary role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was not to mediate a dispute the Palestinians are unwilling to reconcile, but to stand by Israel as America's main ally in the region.
Bush's views earned him the enmity of the Arabs, the Europeans, the Washington elites and the Israeli Left. And together they undermined his policies and isolated him until less that a year later, he abandoned his positions. In mid-2003 he set aside his demand for a reordering of Palestinian society and his decision to side with Israel. In their place, Bush joined the Arabs, the Europeans, the UN and the Israeli Left in making the establishment of a Palestinian state the centerpiece of his Middle East agenda. As with Lebanon, here too Bush's acceptance of the establishment's position came at the cost of eschewing Israel as a US ally.
BUSH'S UNWILLINGNESS to carry through on his freedom agenda in the face of unrelenting opposition from Europe, the Arabs and his foreign policy establishment is what has prevented him throughout his presidency from contending with the greatest source of volatility and danger in the region – Iran. Largely as a consequence of the ambiguity and weakness of his policies on Iran, it is likely that one of the most prominent legacies of Bush's Middle East policies will be a nuclear-armed Iran.
With just six weeks remaining to his tenure in office, much of what Bush will leave behind him has already been determined. But there are two things he can still do that will impact greatly both the world he leaves behind and how he is judged by history: He can take action against Iran's nuclear program, and he can embrace Israel as an ally by pardoning four men who have been persecuted for assuming the alliance exists.
On the surface, these two agenda items couldn't be more disparate. By neutralizing Iran's nuclear installations Bush would save the lives of millions of people. By pardoning Jonathan Pollard, Larry Franklin, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, he would save the lives of four people.
But the fact of the matter is that the two issues present Bush with the same challenge. They both require him to find the courage to embrace the vision that he tried but failed to realize in the early years of his presidency.
By attacking Iran's nuclear installations – or by permitting Israel to fly
over Iraq to attack Iran's nuclear installations – Bush will do two things. He will bolster the US-Israel alliance. And he will demonstrate that the stability engendered by the status quo is antithetical to US interests.
Until now, Bush has been prevented from taking action in Iran by those who insist that the status quo in Iran and throughout the region is preferable to every other alternative. This was the view that propelled Washington's foreign policy establishment to oppose Israel's independence 60 years ago and has caused them to continue to oppose accepting Israel as an ally to this day.
To maintain the predominance of this view, over the years its proponents have persecuted individuals who reject it. In 1985, when Jonathan Pollard was arrested for transferring classified information to Israel, he was not treated like a man who had transferred secrets to a US ally. He was treated like a man who had transferred secrets to al-Qaida. His sentence of life in prison was meant to serve as a deterrent for anyone who dared question the view that Israel is nothing more than an albatross placed around the US's neck by a powerful American Jewish lobby and by dimwitted politicians.
Whereas Pollard's fate was sealed long before Bush entered the White House, Franklin, Rosen and Weissman's nightmare began under his watch.
In 2006, former Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin was sentenced to 12 years in prison for seeking the assistance of two AIPAC lobbyists – Rosen and Weissman – in bringing the threat posed by Iran's nuclear weapons program to Bush's attention. By speaking with Rosen and Weissman, Franklin was behaving as countless government employees behave. He was prosecuted not for sharing information with the men, but for mistakenly assuming that his view of Israel as a US ally was shared by the powers-that-be in Washington.
Weissman and Rosen are in the midst of a long, costly, drawn-out trial and stand charged with mishandling classified information under a statute that has not been enforced since World War I. For more than four years they have been treated as criminals for doing nothing more than their job as lobbyists – for a lobby that was founded on the understanding that the US and Israel are strategic allies.
The Bush who understood that a stable tyranny is a threat to a vibrant democracy knew that Iran had to be defeated and its regime overthrown. The Bush who celebrated the shared values on which both the US and Israel are founded knew that those who seek Israel's destruction will also never peacefully coexist with the US. If that Bush is still around, the time has come for him to act on those understandings. Before he leaves office he should embrace Israel as an ally and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Not only will he secure the lives of millions of people. He will also secure his place in history.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.