Bush Marches Into a Second Term, His Agenda Set by Mideast Foes

By Michael Rubin

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.
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Last week, George W. Bush took the oath of office and began his second term. With 150,000 troops still in Iraq, Iran developing nuclear weapons and new leadership in the Palestinian Authority, the Middle East will continue to dominate White House attention.

To what extent will Bush’s second term be different from his first? For better or worse, not much.

Pundits who keep a scorecard of second-term appointments forget three factors: First, this president remains firm in his views. When he speaks about freedom, liberty and democracy, he is sincere. Second, the rank-and-file of not only the CIA, but also of the State Department and even many in the Pentagon, are hostile to the president’s Middle East policies.

During Bush’s first term, the National Security Council failed to impose discipline either upon policy process or execution. There is no indication that the second term will be any different. Hostile bureaucrats and lack of discipline lead to both stonewalling — such as with Bush’s democracy initiatives — and policy vacuums. Third and most importantly, the actions of adversaries rather than the initiatives of Washington remain the dominant factor in shaping policy.

Iraq is a case in point. Months before the June 28, 2004, dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer’s dictates had ceased to be relevant to most Iraqis. By day, Iraqi politicians might go through the motions of consultation with American diplomats, but at night, in smoky Baghdad parlors far from the Green Zone, the Iraqis would cement deals and stake out positions. It was the Iraqi leaders who led the drive for sovereignty, dragging a petulant Bremer behind. While the Americans — myself included — pushed for administrative federalism based upon Iraq’s 18 governates, Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masud Barzani steadfastly filibustered and threatened until Washington relented.

Policy initiatives subject to fierce debate in Washington will fall by the wayside after Iraqis elect their government. Diplomats and intelligence officials still trumpet reconciliation for Baathists. General David Petraeus embraced the reintegration of Baathists into key political and security positions. There are more than 900 senior Baathists in the Interior Ministry alone. Re-Baathification might have pleased Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but Iraqis are furious. They correlate Washington’s reconciliation policy with the growth of the insurgency. The State Department might force a Sunni strategy but, after elections, Iraq will simply toss it aside.

Regardless of the State Department trial balloons, there will be no quick withdrawal from Iraq. Iraq’s neighbors all wanted the United States to succeed militarily and fail politically. Their reasons vary: All but Iran fear consolidation of Shiite power. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia worry about a federalist precedent. Iran dreads both democracy and Shiite voices it cannot control emanating from holy cities it does not possess. Both Tehran and Damascus see American withdrawal as an existential threat. Should there be any significant American pullout, Bush would be freer to deploy them against Iran and Syria. Iraq’s neighbors will accordingly lend passive if not active support to the insurgents to maintain a low-level conflict in Iraq. American forces may redeploy outside the cities, but they will be needed in Iraq for a long time to come.

With regard to Iran, the second Bush administration will replicate the mistakes of the first. The State Department will carry the day with a renewed effort to engage, and the Islamic Republic will be just as willing to accede. Still more last chances allow Iran to run down the clock toward nuclear capability, something which the clerical leadership considers key to maintaining power.

Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice is disinclined to assist the Iranian people in their quest for freedom. Her opposition to both Ukrainian independence and the Red Army’s withdrawal from Eastern Europe is legendary. Scratch Rice and Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser who has served as Rice’s mentor, oozes out. Given a choice, Rice favors stability over liberty.

Regardless, engagement will fail for the simple reason that the problems are more ideological than political. The Islamic Republic predicates its existence on hatred of America and denial of Israel’s right to exist. Iran’s continuing support for Al Qaeda, continued Revolutionary Guard consolidation of power, and hardliners set to triumph in Iran’s June 2005 presidential elections all increase the likelihood that Iranian-backed terrorists will conduct an operation that would leave Bush little choice but to respond. Recent American requests to station U-2 reconnaissance aircraft in Turkey should be a warning to Tehran.

Pundits have more hope with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The State Department is already leading the charge to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Ultimately, they will fail.

While the Israeli government may want peace, the Palestinian leadership values the process more. If aid again fills Palestinian coffers and Palestinian officials are again welcomed in the White House, why make peace? There is neither indication that states like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran will cease supporting Palestinian terrorism, nor that the new Palestinian leadership has the will to abandon terrorism, especially since any final status agreement would mean accepting the reality that there would be no right of Palestinian return to Israel.

Some scenarios, however, would be better than others. Perhaps the worst option for the United States would be Prime Minister Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza. Televised images of Hezbollah or Hamas flags flying over former Jewish settlements would reinvigorate the insurgency in Iraq and justify terrorism for decades more.

Bush may be a visionary. Overcoming both bureaucratic resistance and defeatist foreign policy elites, he freed both Afghanistan and Iraq of odious regimes. He retains moral clarity and remains committed to introducing democracy to the region. But the path will remain rough and the process bumpy.

Most professional diplomats treat Bush with disdain; in Baghdad, they did not hesitate to make their personal views known to foreign counterparts. Large-scale initiatives like the Middle East Partnership Initiative will likely fall flat, not because the program lacks importance, but rather because there is insufficient desire among professional diplomats to see it succeed.

When the White House inserts political appointees into Foggy Bottom, career Foreign Service officers up to the assistant secretary level simply channel information and decisions away from them. Bush’s policies not only threat the status quo on which professional diplomats’ careers have been built, but also the relationships with Arab elites upon which many cash in after retirement. Dissidents like Fathi El-Jahmy remain in jail in Libya. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns has refused to predicate future negotiations with Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi upon this dissident’s release.

The rollercoaster ride will continue. Bush’s second term might not bring Arab democracy, but it will not revert to pre-September 11 realism either. Bush’s second-term team may welcome engagement and the peace process, but they cannot escape the reality of the adversaries they face, nor can they expect to make concessions to terrorism and blackmail without engendering more. It will be a rough ride. There will be many obstacles — many thrown up by Bush’s own team — but there will be no turning back.

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