In the troubled, conflict-ridden Middle East, President George W Bush has done everything wrong. But his mandate still has half a year to run and, unless restrained, he can do a lot more damage — to the region and to America — before he retires to his ranch at Crawford, Texas, and to the obscurity he amply deserves.
At the heart of the disaster of his presidency was his failure to grasp why the United States was attacked by al-Qaeda on 11 September 2001. He appears never to have asked himself why 19 young Muslims — 15 of whom were Saudis, and several of them highly-educated —were prepared to throw away their lives in order to punish America.
Even to ask the question was considered heresy. Surely America had done nothing to arouse such homicidal rage? America was good! America was blameless! These vicious terrorists, and all those who supported them, had to be hunted down across the world and destroyed.
So were launched Bush’s ill-fated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and his “Global War on Terror,” which have ruined America’s good name, killed hundreds of thousands, shattered whole societies, and created far more terrorists than they could ever eliminate.
Neither Bush nor anyone around him appears to have considered the blowback from America’s war, waged throughout the 1980s, to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan — when tens of thousands of young Muslims from around the region were recruited, armed and trained, only to be abandoned and left to their fate when the Russians packed their bags and left.
No one seems to have considered the impact on local opinion of the half-million American troops who in 1990-91 swarmed into Saudi Arabia — a land sacred to many Muslims because it houses the holy shrines at Mecca and Medina — in order to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Nor did anyone consider the impact on Arab opinion of the savage punishment inflicted on Iraq for its transgression, including 13 years of punitive sanctions, which brought the country to its knees long before Bush destroyed it altogether.
Nor did Bush begin to understand the bitter Arab anger aroused by America’s unfailing military, financial, and diplomatic support for Israel as it invaded and struck Lebanon repeatedly, and as it cruelly oppressed the Palestinians and pushed its illegal settlements deep into Palestinian territory.
Bush had no insight into the mind of the Al-Qaeda hijackers — or of the millions who share their anger, even if they disapprove of their methods. He was thus easy prey for those around him who, exploiting 9/11 for their own ends, pressed for an attack on Iraq.
Donald Rumsfeld, then defense secretary, wanted to teach the Arabs a lesson about U.S. military power they would never forget. He had, moreover, a more personal motive. He wanted to prove to critics in his own defense establishment that his ideas for reshaping the U.S. armed services — to make them leaner, more mobile and more hard-hitting — were sound. He needed a war to prove his point.
Vice-President Dick Cheney had his eye on Iraq’s oil and on the multi-billion dollar contracts American firms like Halliburton could hope to win for rebuilding Iraq’s dilapidated infrastructure.
These two trends might not have been sufficient to sweep America into war had it not been for the passionate advocacy of Washington’s pro-Israeli neo-cons who, throughout the 1990s, clamored for regime change in Baghdad. Their main concern was to improve Israel’s strategic environment by removing any threat to it from a potential Arab “eastern front.” If Iraq were smashed, the “eastern front” would collapse. For them, 9/11 was a gift from the gods.
Bush swallowed the argument that al-Qaeda’s attack had nothing to do with America’s foreign policy or with its alliance with Israel. America, the neo-cons argued, had been attacked because of the backward and tyrannical countries from which the terrorists sprang, and the violent, fanatical religion they practiced.
It followed that for American and Israel to be safe, Arab society had to be reformed, if necessary by force — beginning with Iraq. This was the neo-cons’ rationale for war, which Bush adopted wholesale as his own. American military power was to be used to transform and reorder the Arab world so as to make it pro-American and pro-Israeli. The region would be tamed by a joint American-Israeli hegemony.
This demented geopolitical fantasy has had lethal consequences, which are with us still. It has served to twist America’s whole approach to the Middle East. Instead of the United States being a benign superpower, or honest broker, helping to resolve the region’s many conflicts — as it could have been — Bush has turned it into a malevolent hegemon, exacerbating conflicts and spreading chaos and death.
Instead of recognizing his failure in Iraq early on, and bringing the war to a speedy end, Bush has plowed on, at enormous cost to the U.S. armed services and to U.S. public finances — and, of course, to Iraq itself, now a broken and divided “failed state,” a fifth of whose wretched population has either fled abroad or been internally displaced. An immediate consequence of destroying Iraq has been to enhance Iran’s regional power.
Instead of using America’s great leverage to bring about a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict — resolving Israel’s conflict not only with all the Palestinians, but with Syria and Lebanon as well — Bush has obstinately sought to isolate and sanction Syria. In 2006, he backed Israel’s disastrous Lebanon war, and has followed Israel’s lead in demonizing Hamas as a “terrorist” organization, thereby tolerating and excusing Israel’s outrageous siege of Gaza, which has reduced 1.5 million people to abject penury.
Instead of helping to bring Fatah and Hamas together — as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Norway, and now even France are trying to do — Bush has armed Fatah against Hamas. Yet, without inter-Palestinian reconciliation, peace talks — such as Israel’s Ehud Olmert is conducting with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas — are absolutely meaningless.
Instead of using American influence to mediate between all factions in Lebanon — as Qatar, the Arab League and France are attempting to do — Bush has pushed the government in Beirut to challenge Hizbullah, and has supplied it with money and weapons to do so. But there can be no peace in Lebanon until the Shi’a community, represented by Hizbullah, wins its rightful place in the political system, and until Israel leaves the country alone, once and for all.
Bush and his Israeli allies are now obsessed with a so-called threat from Iran, and its nuclear activities. The same people in Washington who pushed for war against Iraq are now pressing for war against Iran. Instead of using his influence to reconcile Iran and its Arab neighbors, in particular Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Bush has attempted (so far fortunately unsuccessfully) to mobilize them against Iran.
He does not seem to grasp that the greatest fear of the Gulf States is of an American/Israeli strike against Iran which would be catastrophic for them, as they would find themselves in the line of fire.
Everything Bush has touched has turned to dross. But he still has another half year in the White House, and who can say of what further destructive follies he might yet be capable.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East.