Bush's last chance

If he does not change course, his presidency will end decades of US hegemony in the Middle East, to the detriment of its closest allies in the region.

Though triggered by the need to devise an exit strategy from the Iraqi quagmire, the Iraq Study Group's grim report is a devastating indictment of the Bush administration's entire foreign policy. The report challenges the core principles of a faith-driven administration and of a president whose political gospel led him to a sharp departure from the culture of conflict resolution in favour of a crusade based on raw power.

A war that cannot be ended is sometimes worse than a war that is lost. Therefore, the Iraq report is more than a plan to rescue Iraq; it is a road map for extricating America from the mayhem of an unwinnable war. However much the study group shunned recommendations for a precipitous withdrawal, and avoided strict timetables for disengagement, their report is not only an unequivocal repudiation of Bush's "stay the course" obsession, but also a counsel to cut and run.

Indeed, there is no realistic chance that the Iraqi army and police will be able to take over combat responsibilities and effective policing any time soon. The entire security apparatus in Iraq is corrupt and infiltrated by insurgents. Nor is it at all clear to what degree the Iraqis retain a stake in the idea of a united Iraqi state worth fighting for. The report practically calls for ending all support to the Iraqi government if it fails to assume its responsibilities.

None of the Middle East's problems has a military solution, and none can be solved through unilateral action. The report is therefore right to challenge Bush's insistence on discarding both Iran and Syria as interlocutors for a more stable regional order. Iran has the most leverage inside Iraq, and Syria has become a vital crossing point for weapons and insurgents into the Iraqi battlefield. There is simply no way that Iraq can be stabilized without America moving from a policy of disengagement to one of engagement with these two major regional spoilers.

The report thus stands as a rebuke to Bush's entire "axis of evil" philosophy. It refuses to ascribe to Iran's secretive state an ideological rigidity that might not exist. Indeed, Iran has shown its ability to behave with startling pragmatism more than once, not least in its links to Israel and the United States during its war against Iraq in the 1980's, and in its assistance to the Americans in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But it is not only Iraq that requires regional support groups to reach a modicum of stability. All the problems of the Middle East - Iraq, the Arab-Israeli dispute, the need for political reforms, and Islamic terrorism - are interrelated. The interconnectedness of the problems in the outer circle of the region and those pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the inner circle was shown by the first Bush administration. Following the first Gulf war, it organised a major international conference in October 1991 aimed at securing an Arab-Israeli peace.

Neither the Israeli government nor its intimate ally in the White House can be expected to applaud the Iraq Study Group's call for a repetition of that logic because it contradicts everything the Bush administration has championed. The report's recommendation for an international conference in the style of the Madrid peace conference is not only a timely indication of the linkage between the Israeli-Arab conflict and the region's other troubles. It is also a long overdue reminder that bilateral negotiations between the parties cannot produce an agreement. That realisation prompted the all-Arab peace initiative of 2002, which established the conditions for an Israeli-Arab comprehensive settlement.

Alas, however bipartisan the Iraq Study Group's report may be, it is too much to expect that Bush will endorse all of its recommendations and admit the bankruptcy of his entire foreign policy. In fact, Bush has already expressed his objection to unconditional direct talks with Iran and Syria. Nor does he seem eager to open a rift with Israel by dragging its government to an international conference, the way his father did with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1991.

Bush will find it especially difficult to change his policy with respect to Iran. To ensure that the US is too harassed to be able to threaten it, Iran has consistently obstructed Bush's mission of regional transformation. The report urges the president to understand that the spoilers will not cease to be spoilers as a precondition of negotiations, but only as a result of them. At stake is a painful choice for Bush: to lead America into coexistence with what he considers a repugnant Islamic theocracy.

But Bush does not have many choices if he is to save his presidency from going down in history as an utter failure. His was a suicidal brand of statecraft from the outset. If he does not change course in Iraq and beyond, his presidency might draw the curtain on long decades of American hegemony in the Middle East, to the detriment of its closest allies in the region.

©Project Syndicate, 2006.


Shlomo Ben-Ami

The GuardianTramp

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