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A Monumental Challenge to America

Alon Ben-Meir - February 11, 2008

The collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century, leaving the United States as the sole superpower, led to the century being dubbed, "The American Century." The world looked forward to enlightened leadership, visionary policies, and a multilateral approach in the conduct of American diplomacy. President Clinton was, though tainted by the Lewinsky affair, widely respected in the global community. It was hoped the new president would follow, if not the same policies, an enlightened path. But in seven short years, President Bush turned the world's hope and optimism into deep disillusionment. Many in the Middle East, looking back, wonder how a single president could have committed so many blunders that so tarnished America's global standing and moral leadership.

Ironically, although Mr. Bush's Middle East policy was prompted by national security and strategic considerations championed by the neo-conservatives, everything he touched had the opposite effect than intended. Mr. Bush's Middle East adventures underscore the enormity of his foreign policy failures, from which it may take America years to recover. But for such a recovery to occur, we must first understand what went wrong and the underlying assumptions supporting such disastrous policies. The short answer is that the failures stem from a complete lack of understanding of the historical background, cultural orientation, religious extremism, and social and political schisms in every country where the administration intervened. As examples: no central government or conqueror has ever tamed, subdued, or governed the tribal areas in Afghanistan, and the enmity and distrust between the Shiite, Sunnis, and the Kurds in Iraq, has existed for hundreds of years–thus no elections could possibly engender their amity. Yet the administration plunged into these countries with an attitude of "we know best what is good for you"– a recipe of arrogance mixed with ignorance that has proved toxic.

It was initially sound policy to invade Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda's base and infrastructure, and that is why the international community fully supported the war. It was, however, tragically mistaken to not fully consolidate the coalition's presence, pursue Al Qaeda to the bitter end, and invest all necessary resources and military power to prevent the Taliban from resurfacing and Al Qaeda from restructuring again as they both now have.

Instead of focusing on these ends, Mr. Bush decided, in the name of the war on terror, to wage, at astronomical cost, both financially and in terms of human sacrifice, a war of choice in Iraq, against a presumed enemy that posed no immanent danger and had neither connection to Al Qaeda nor weapons of mass destruction. The war unleashed a tragic civil war between the Sunnis and the Shiites, causing untold destruction and sowing the seeds for a divided Iraq, a divided region, and ominous discord between radical Muslims and the West. Iraq has now become the training ground for terrorists poised to terrorize the entire region.

Also, instead of capitalizing on the progress made in the Camp David negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in the summer of 2000, Mr. Bush left the combatants to slug it out by themselves, which allowed Hamas to become a political force that must be reckoned with. Mr. Bush's convening an international peace conference in Annapolis at the 11th hour of his presidency was simply cynical theatrics. Few of those with credibility believe the announced goal to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement by the end of 2008 is anything but an illusion.

Refusing to negotiate with Iran to end its nuclear ambitions and insisting rather on regime change in Tehran was another failed policy that only pushed Iran to accelerate its nuclear program. Further emboldened by the debacle in Iraq and swimming in oil money, Tehran defied both America and the international community without fear of real reprisal. Today, Iran poses a greater regional threat than ever, and it will become doubly menacing with nuclear weapons.

And what of the administration's obsession to marginalize and isolate Syria? It pushed Damascus steadily into Iran's belly, a result that should have been obvious. Refusing to be ignored and threatened with regime change, Syria spared no effort to become the regional spoiler. It has allowed Hezbollah to arm to the teeth, provided political support and facilitated financial assistance to Hamas coming from Iran, while turning a blind eye to the infiltration of insurgents and weapons into Iraq. The 2006 summer war between Hezbollah and Israel was just another unhappy consequence of Mr. Bush shortsighted Syrian policy.

Finally, Mr. Bush's push for political reform and democracy has backfired wherever elections have occurred: In Egypt, elections strengthened the Muslim Brotherhood, in the Palestinian territories, they brought Hamas to power, in Lebanon, they created dangerous political instability, in Iraq, they precipitated civil war, and in Pakistan, they created neither peace nor stability. Without understanding the socio-economic and political conditions unique to each county, allowing democratic institutions to develop, permitting liberal parties to compete, without a free press and a fair judiciary, and a serious commitment to sustainable development projects to lift millions of Arabs from abject poverty, it should have been obvious that Islamic groups, better organized and financed, and with extensive social networks and services, would be the ultimate beneficiaries.

The administration's mishaps in the Middle East have not been unique. Its recklessness in dealing with the environment, in denying fundamental human rights in the name of national security, in bullying and alienating many allies, in its addiction to oil and the oil interests, and in its unilateralism, have come back to haunt it. Mr. Bush is either unwilling or unable to change before his departure. The question is will the next president rise to this monumental challenge now facing America?

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