The Magazine

The Struggle for the Middle East

From the January 3 / January 10, 2005 issue: Iraq, Iran, and democracy.

Jan 3, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 16 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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THE MIDDLE EAST HAS DEFINED the first four years of George W. Bush's presidency. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration's evolving pro-democracy Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, and the downplaying of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation have overturned America's traditional approach to the region. Our European and Muslim allies in the Cold War, the transatlanticist foreign-policy establishment in the United States, and the Near Eastern cadres within the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency have all been dismayed--in the case of France, Germany, and certain quarters at Foggy Bottom and Langley, appalled--by the post-9/11 actions of President Bush.

But what should be the administration's Middle East project for the next four years? Post-Saddam Iraq is not a failure--as long as roughly 80 percent of Iraq's population is moving towards democratic governance, we're not failing. But it is certainly an awful mess. Clerical Iran, the bête noire of every administration since 1979, is advancing its nuclear-weapons programs and playing a favorite Middle Eastern parlor game--divide-and-frustrate the Westerners (the Europeans have enthusiastically abetted Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the clerical regime's major-domo and its most accomplished realpolitician). And even though Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda has so far failed to strike the United States again--a more severe visa policy towards Middle Eastern Muslim males has all by itself made tactical planning and operations inside the United States enormously difficult--Islamic holy-warriorism remains a ferocious menace. Muslim Americans have shown themselves highly resistant to violent Islamic extremism--if they had been as susceptible to bin Ladenism as European Muslims have been, we would likely have seen numerous attacks since 9/11 inside the United States. Young Muslim men could still, however, get infected by the ever-vibrant militancy coming from abroad. As long as bin Ladenism brews in the Middle East, the successful penetration of America's defenses remains an ever-terrifying possibility.

How is the administration going to deal with bin Ladenism in the Middle East? The Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, the Bush administration's attempt to shatter the nexus between autocracy and Islamic extremism, could easily die an early death if it becomes only a program administered by the Near East Bureau of the State Department. The bureau has never liked the idea, seeing it as an annoying project advanced by naive pro-democracy hands at the National Security Council. The further we are from 9/11, the easier it is for some to view bin Ladenism as a pre-9/11 tactical threat, one sufficiently dealt with by enhanced domestic security and closer liaison relationships with the European and Middle Eastern intelligence and security services. (The "realist" camp--think Brent Scowcroft on the right, Zbigniew Brzezinski on the left--has more or less held this view since September 12, 2001.) Just a year ago, in November 2003, the president declared war on the status quo in the Middle East by announcing his new "forward strategy of freedom." So how can his administration advance the initiative so that it isn't feckless?

And should the Bush administration now become more engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation? The oldest, luckiest, and most influential terrorist, Yasser Arafat, is at long last dead. Some of his minions in the Palestine Liberation Organization seem in comparison more moderate. The Europeans, who view the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio as the epicenter of Islamic militancy in the Middle East and among Europe's millions of Muslims, are desperate to see progress in the Holy Land. A sizable slice of Washington's foreign-policy establishment, and Muslim reformers abroad, share the European assessment of the global repercussions from Israeli-Palestinian troubles. They would love to see the United States again more engaged. A resumption of the "peace process" would help our embattled friend, British prime minister Tony Blair, America's staunchest European ally, who is perpetually torn between America and his French and German "partners." So should the Bush administration abandon its restrained, wait-and-see approach to the evolution of Palestinian politics and pressure Israel again to make concessions to nurture Palestinian moderates?

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