No Thanks, Mr. President

By Leonard Fein

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.
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Depend on it: Before long former New York mayor Ed Koch, Rep. Eric Cantor and Republican National Committee head Ken Mehlman will be telling American Jews that we owe George W. Bush a vote of gratitude for his steadfast support of Israel in its current conflict with Hezbollah. And there are doubtless large numbers of Jews who, though reluctant as ever to pull the Republican lever, will think that Koch et al have a point.

Israel’s position is clear: “Give us the tools [i.e., time and early delivery of precision-guided bombs] and we will finish the job.” And the Bush administration is doing exactly that. Has any president ever done more or even as well on Israel’s behalf?

The first answer is yes.

Jimmy Carter: the Camp David agreement that led to peace between Israel and Egypt. George H. W. Bush: the Madrid conference that led to face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and eventually to widespread agreement that a two-state solution is the only way to end the conflict, as also repeal of the United Nations’ “Zionism is Racism” resolution. Bill Clinton: the Oslo Accords, brokerage of the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, additional efforts so constant that if only he were to run, he’d surely be elected Israel’s prime minister by a landslide.

Others will say, well and good, but at this time and in this place, Bush is as good as it gets.

The second answer is, yes, but. Yes, but we would not be in this time or in this place were it not for the wretchedly ill-informed and ill-managed policies of the Bush administration. Permit a partial catalogue.

Foremost, there’s America’s willful diversion from the battle against terrorism to the killing streets of Baghdad and Basra and Kirkuk and Mosul and Fallujah and so on and so forth throughout Iraq, a bloody diversion that has sapped our nation’s strength and badly tarnished its reputation. So far, in addition to the 2,565 American soldiers who have been killed in Iraq and the 18,777 who have been wounded, there have been some 40,000 deaths of Iraqi civilians.

Bush triumphantly announced that we would make the Middle East not only safe for, but actually welcoming to, democracy, as if totalitarian Saudi Arabia and authoritarian Egypt, our friends in the region, would welcome such a prospect. He chose to maintain our policy of zero contact with Iran and he chose not to talk with Syria either, as if turning our back on them would lead them to make nice to us or render them impotent. It has done neither.

He joined Israel in dismissing Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, as too weak to warrant our attention, as if that in itself would not ensure Abbas’s weakness. And he indulged Ariel Sharon in his foolhardy insistence on withdrawing from Gaza unilaterally rather urging him to undertake a real effort at bilateral agreement with the Palestinians, as if the Hamas whirlwind that followed were not a clear and present danger.

Most of all, there’s been the Bush administration’s peculiar passivity regarding Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, a passivity that has characterized the six years that Bush has been in office — the absence of a sustained effort of the sort that distinguished his predecessors in office. Every now and then, a glancing nod to the Road Map, but no attention paid when the parties pulled onto side roads, bumping and bumbling along there, on rutted one-lane roads to nowhere.

Qassam rockets in Gaza? Well, the United States isn’t talking with Hamas, remember? Israeli soldiers taken prisoner by Hezbollah? Well, the United States doesn’t talk with Hezbollah or with Syria or with Iran, remember? It is as if the doctrine of “abstinence only” has infected our foreign policy.

Grateful to Bush? Our misadventure in Iraq is celebrated nowhere so much as in Iran, which now threatens to become the leading power in its region — which, as it happens, is also Israel’s region. So now the president needs Israel, needs Israel to win, needs Israel to accomplish in Lebanon what the United States has been unable to manage in Afghanistan and unable to achieve in Iraq. He needs a win in the war against terrorism.

We could all use such a win. There really are terrorists out there, and they really mean to do us and our friends evil. And Iran really does encourage and support them.

But there is something deeply unsettling about a war conducted through surrogates, Iran’s Hezbollah and America’s Israel. Israel has every right to seek to weaken Hezbollah and to blunt Iran, and there’s nothing wrong with American help in that effort — so long as we remember that but for America’s follies, the foolish policies of Bush and the neoconservatives, Iran would have been far less adventuresome, Hezbollah consequently more quiescent, the cities of northern Israel unscathed, the citizens of Lebanon at home and alive.

In Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah, Bush may be on the right side of geography. But in his unending series of calamitous ineptitudes, he is surely on the wrong side of history.

No matter how the conflict in Lebanon ends, it cannot right the damage that Bush’s false grit has done America; in the debit column of history’s ledger book, his foreign policy failures will be counted as startling a cost as the Marshall Plan of Harry Truman’s day remains a stunning credit.

The Bush legacy involves not merely passing errors of judgment that can be easily corrected by his successors; it involves a deficit that will burden generations to come.

No thanks, Mr. President.

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