The Magazine

Bush's Great Middle East Gamble

The best hope for Iran is winning in Iraq.

Nov 14, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 09 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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SINCE 9/11, President Bush and this most convulsive region of the Muslim world have become Siamese twins, inseparably connected in Iraq. If the Iraqi experiment takes--and we will certainly know whether a new democratic Iraq is alive and kicking by the end of the Bush presidency--then President Bush will likely rank with Ronald Reagan, the last president American liberals and "realists" truly disliked, as one of the boldest and most far-sighted American leaders. The hoo-ha over the CIA official Valerie Plame will not likely have the magnitude of the Iran-contra scandal, which, whatever its improprieties, barely dented the historic achievement of Reagan against the Soviet Empire. If Iraq collapses, however, then President Bush will be disparaged more savagely by both Democrats and Republicans than was LBJ, the grand architect of America's failure in Vietnam. It's reasonable to guess that a majority of Americans now would not give the Bush administration a passing grade in the Middle East. If a private straw vote were taken among neoconservatives, they, too, might fail this presidency, given Bush's toleration of incompetence at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency in Iraq and elsewhere.

Is such severity warranted? No. It is, however, a close call. On none of the major Middle Eastern issues that define this administration--the war in Iraq, thwarting clerical Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, the struggle against Middle Eastern autocracy and Islamic extremism, and the democratization of the Greater Middle East--is the administration doing brilliantly. Concerning clerical Iran, a member of the now-never-mentioned "axis of evil," President Bush is doing almost as poorly as President Clinton did against North Korea (the embarrassing image and words of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang are very hard to top). And the administration's ongoing display of weakness toward the clerical regime may well have ugly ramifications in Iraq, where fear of American strength is an extremely important factor in dissuading the Islamic Republic from trying to sabotage the growth of democracy. Though the administration is doing a much better job of articulating a sound understanding of Islamic extremism and defining the "war on terror" as a fight against Islamic radicalism, it has not developed a plan for encouraging and prodding Middle Eastern autocracies to open up their political systems. When a senior White House official described the administration's democratization program as "stalled," he was being charitable. Nonetheless, add up all the negatives and positives, and the administration is still ahead. A survey of the region and issues ought to reveal that the Bush administration, though of diminishing internal strength and international vigor, is likely to leave the Middle East and the United States in far better shape than we were before the invasion of Iraq.

Iraq. As we learn more about the cultural background of the Iraqi insurgency, it is becoming apparent that a mutation has occurred inside Iraq's Sunni community. Former Baathists have become Sunni supremacists-cum-Islamic militants. This is, given contemporary Muslim history, a wholly natural evolution. Think about Algeria, Egypt, and Syria, which all once had highly charged authoritarian and secular ideologies and once were particularly nasty police states. As the regimes grew more clannish and corrupt and the ideologies rotted, Islamic identity and religious expression expanded, gathered strength, and increasingly tilted toward violence. Since Saddam's secular totalitarianism was the most severe in the Middle East, its withering and collapse naturally engendered strong religious expression in its wake. This has happened among both Sunni and Shiite Arabs; the same has probably happened among the Kurds, too, though the Kurdish leadership insists on showing Westerners only the secular-loving nature of the Kurdish people.