Let us imagine for a moment that the years of George W. Bush as president have already passed us by, that it is perhaps 2017. In this imaginary time, what might the former president’s Wikipedia entry look like? Here is a guess: "George Walker Bush (born July 6, 1946) was the 43rd U.S. president. His decision to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein resulted in the disintegration of Iraq and in the emergence of its neighbor and rival Iran as the main military power in the Persian Gulf, turning the Shiite-headed regime in Baghdad as well as the Shiite-led groups in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East into political satellites of Tehran. The invasion of Iraq accelerated Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear military capability (which it did in 2009 immediately after President Barack Obama entered the White House), posing a major threat to U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Western strategic and economic interests in the oil-rich region. At the same time, the collapse of Iraq also led to the intervention of Turkey in the Kurdish areas of the country and to the growing radicalization of the Iraqi Sunni minority. It is not surprising therefore that many historians have concluded that the invasion of Iraq was one of the major strategic mistakes in U.S. history."
Of course, one does not need a crystal ball to determine that President Bush’s actions on Iraq were seriously flawed. The above imaginary biography from 2017 could be titled, "The Legacy U.S. President George W. Bush Does Not Want." It also gives one an idea why Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney might focus most of their attention and remaining political resources in the next 600 or so days on dealing with the Middle East, and in particular on managing the war in Iraq and the growing confrontation with Iran, to the detriment of other domestic and foreign policy issues, including America’s ties with its allies in the Pacific and the Atlantic as well as its trade policies.
Hence, while many pundits have speculated that some of the major foreign policy moves by the Bush administration (the six-party deal with North Korea on its nuclear program; refraining from challenging Beijing over its defense buildup and human rights conduct; reducing the tensions with Moscow over the proposed U.S. missile defense) are a reflection of the new "realism" promoted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, these steps should be seen as part of an effort to "park" all these issues on the policy backburner so as to permit Bush and his advisers to divert more time and energy to the Middle East.
After all, one recalls that putting military pressure on Pyongyang while rejecting a compromise with it, advancing a "containment" strategy vis-à-vis Beijing, and stirring up anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine, the Caucus, and Central Asia through "color revolutions" have been central policy plans on the neoconservative agenda. Yet Bush and his aides have ended up embracing almost the same kind of accord with North Korea that they had once portrayed as a Clinton-style appeasement. They have been less inclined to encourage new anti-Russia bashing in Ukraine and Georgia and even proposed linking some U.S. and Russian antimissile systems, and they have certainly not raised again their earlier proposals of working together with Japan, India, and Taiwan as part of a strategic alliance to counterbalance China in Asia.
Moreover, there are no indications that the administration is planning to pick major fights with the Democrat-controlled Congress over restarting the Doha round of trade liberalization, privatizing Social Security, or immigration policies. And to the disappointment of America’s military allies in Afghanistan, the administration has not gone out of its way to mobilize international support for the feeble pro-Western government in Kabul or exert more pressure on Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to stand up to the radical Islamist groups in his country.
The only policy area that seems to excite Bush and bring him back to life from his political depression is the Middle East, where he rightly assumes his legacy as a president could be determined. Hence his refusal to pursue the policy ideas presented to him by the Iraq Study Group (ISG). When it comes to the Middle East, and in particular his rejection of the ISG’s main suggestion that Washington needs to engage Iran and Syria, Bush has refused to project the same kind of "realism" that he supposedly adopted with regard to North Korea, China, and Russia.
Notwithstanding his public statements to the contrary, Bush has probably concluded that there is not much he can do to revive his ambitious Freedom Agenda in the Middle East, which was supposed to transform Iraq into a shining model of political and economic freedom for the entire region, creating the conditions for "regime change" in Iran and Syria and encouraging moves toward reform in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other regional pro-American authoritarian regimes. The reasons for the reversal here are quite obvious. Washington doesn’t have the military capability to force regime change in Tehran and Damascus and it needs all the help it can get from Cairo and Riyadh to bring stability in Iraq and deter the mullahs in Iran. Moreover, there is a recognition in Washington that after what happened as a result of free elections in Palestine (Hamas won) and Lebanon (Hezbollah was strengthened), similar exercises in electoral politics in, say, Egypt could bring to power anti-American movements like the Moslem Brotherhood.
In a way, what has survived from the neoconservative project of Democratic Empire is the Empire—that is, the project has been drained of its Wilsonian idealism and has been transformed to a Realpolitik-based program of sustaining the U.S. hegemonic position in the region. In that context, central to the Bush administration’s policy is the need to maintain at home and abroad a perception of "strength" and "resolve" as opposed to "weakness" and "appeasement." From that perspective, Bush’s unyielding personal backing of his Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (the symbol of the administration’s tough legal stands in the name of combating terrorism) and of World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz (the neocon whiz-kid who as a former Defense Department official helped lay the foundation for the Bush Doctrine) is meant to send clear signals to the anti-war critics that Bush will not throw to the wolves either the legal mind behind Abu Ghraib or the intellectual architect of the Iraq War.
Similarly, the belligerent attitude that Bush has adopted in resisting legislation proposed by congressional Democrats to set a timeline for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the harsh language the administration used to criticize the visit to Damascus by House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), are part of an effort to accentuate Bush’s message that he is not willing to negotiate any compromise when it comes to continuing to stand by the government in Baghdad through the military surge and refusing to negotiate with Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad, who has been accused of conspiring to destroy the pro-Western government in Beirut.
The mess in Iraq, combined with the rising power of radical Shiite forces like those led by the cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, has played into the hands of the Iranians. That, together with the failure of Israel to deal a military blow to the Hezbollah in Lebanon in the recent conflict there, has helped shift the balance of power in the Persian Gulf toward Iran and its Shiite allies in the Middle East, in a way that threatens the interests of a key regional U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia. In the eyes of the Bush-Cheney team, the current status quo is only making Iran more assertive, inducing it to continue its nuclear programs. The images of the humiliated British sailors who were held by the Iranians and then released only create the impression that the Iranians are winning in the confrontation with the United States, despite the mighty naval force that Washington is displaying in the Persian Gulf.
But what diplomatic or military actions can the Bush administration take in the next 600 days that would reverse the balance of power in favor of the United States and its allies? A U.S. military victory in Iraq is clearly not a realistic option, so one can expect more orchestration of "turning points" as the Bush administration spins the reduction of violence here or the killing of more insurgents there as signs of "progress" that supposedly demonstrate "success" of the surge and therefore require the American public to show even more "patience and resolve." The standards for measuring success in Iraq have become so low that if Iraq does not break into pieces before a new president comes to Washington, it could be spun by Bush and his aides as a "historic" achievement.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to conceive of any realistic option that could provide the Bush administration with an opportunity to deal a major blow to Iran in a way that would force it to "cry uncle" and to deal with Washington on U.S. terms. The options—attacks by the United States or Israel on Iran’s nuclear military sites; providing support to members of the Arab and Kurdish guerrilla groups in Iran; encouraging students and opposition groups to turn against the regime in Tehran—is fraught with costs and risks, including rising anti-American violence by Iraq’s Shiites, a war between Israel and Syria, and mounting oil prices. All of which would probably not bring Wikipedia editors to make major changes to my draft 2017 bio of Bush.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org), is author most recently of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2006). He blogs at globalparadigms.blogspot.com.