Political Pulse August 2006

Did Bush Get It Backward?

President Bush wants to put Iraq and Israel on the same side ("democracy"). But they're not.
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"It is time for a new Middle East," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week in Jerusalem. A new Middle East does seem to be emerging. But it may not be the one the Bush administration is counting on.

For years, President Bush has promoted a new approach to peacemaking in the Middle East. He has shown little interest in negotiation and compromise—the approach that failed under President Clinton. Bush's preference is for political transformation.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly in September 2004, Bush held up Afghanistan and Iraq as setting the standard for that transformation. "These two nations will be a model for the broader Middle East," the president said. "We must help the reformers of the Middle East as they work for freedom and strive to build a community of peaceful, democratic nations." He then took the argument a step further, telling the world body, "This commitment to democratic reform is essential to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Yet what Americans see is intensifying violence in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and across the Middle East. Do Americans think the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy in the world have been successful? They do not, by 58 percent to 39 percent in the July NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. In April 2003, just after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, 60 percent of Americans thought that the U.S. presence in Iraq would lead to greater stability in the Middle East, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll taken then. Now only 25 percent feel that way.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's visit to Washington exposed a contradiction in the Bush administration's Middle East policy. "The prime minister and I spent time talking about Lebanon," Bush said at the two leaders' joint press conference, "and we had a frank exchange of views on the situation." "Frank" is the diplomatic word for "awkward."

Bush equated Hezbollah and Hamas with the terrorists fighting the government of Iraq. To him, it's all the same war on terror. "What you've witnessed in Israel," Bush said on July 25, "is the act of a terrorist organization trying to stop the advance of democracy in the region." British Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed that argument a few days later when he described what he called "the bigger picture" in the Middle East: "reactionary and terrorist groups trying to stop what the vast majority of people in the Middle East want, which is progress toward democracy, liberty, human rights."

But there's a problem. The government of Iraq has criticized what it calls "Israeli aggression" and refuses to condemn Hezbollah and Hamas—something Democrats were quick to point out. "It was suggested that a democratic Iraq would be an ally of a democratic Israel," Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., said. "Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case. In fact, I would suggest that the opposite is true."

Bush wants to put Iraq and Israel on the same side ("democracy"). But they're not. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said, "The new government in Iraq, which came to power with the blessings of the Bush administration, does not share the same foreign-policy goals of the United States when it comes to the Middle East."

Meanwhile, Hezbollah has scored a big propaganda victory in the Arab world by going to battle with Israel. "Virtually every Sunni Muslim Brotherhood organization has expressed support for Hezbollah, a Shiite organization," Bernard Haykel, professor of Islamic studies at New York University, said. "It's definitely a setback for Al Qaeda."

Good news? Not exactly. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2 man, has issued a message calling on all Muslims to join the war against Israel. In Haykel's view, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are not uniting; they're competing for leadership of the anti-Israel cause. That could make them more dangerous. Al Qaeda expects the war to weaken both Hezbollah and Israel, Haykel said, after which Al Qaeda can attack both of its adversaries.

There's a new Middle East, all right. But Bush may have gotten it backward in his 2004 U.N. speech. A commitment to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict looks more and more essential to achieving democratic reform.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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