Report from Israel 2 - The Bush Legacy in the Middle East

As some may recall I just returned from a 10 day foreign trip, including 6 days in Israel. There I spoke at a major policy conference and met with Israeli journalists, policy makers, elected officials, entrepreneurs and other civic leaders. All in all it was a remarkable trip.

I offered up some initial thoughts soon after arriving in Jerusalem. Since I returned I've been thinking a lot about the trip, and have watched as the people of Gaza spilled into Egypt and the Winograd Commission issued its report. I've come away from the trip with a profound sense that the Bush era has made the Middle East more radical, less stable, more anti-American and anti-Israeli. The policies of the Bush Administration have left our ally, Israel, in a much weaker position than they found it.

4 key points:

The Iraq War is directly responsible for the rise of Iran as a regional power. The Iraq War removed Iran's greatest regional rival, placed an Iranian-influenced Shiite-led government in the heart of the region and paved the way for Iran's current regional ascension, which includes much more robust support for Hezbollah and Hamas. The chaos which has ensued in Iraq will also no doubt create an entire new generation of trained radicals who will be haunting the region for years to come. And the failure of our policy in Iraq has made it much more difficult to rally domestic and world opinion against the prospect of a nuclear Iran, a development hat simply must be seen as one of the greatest security threats in the world today and one that is an existential threat to Israel.

As readers of this blog know I have been obsessed for years about what Bush and company believed would happen in the region if America put in charge of Iraq Shia political parties whose leaders left the country during their war with Iran, and lived and sided with Iran in its war against Saddam. Did we not understand the history of the regional Sunni-Shiite struggle? How could democracy flourish there, particularly without any real plan for investing in and nurturing Iraqi civil society? How could the first Shiite-led Arab government in the Middle East become anything but a threat to the region's Sunni populations, Sunni governments and an ally of Iran?

After the initial success of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, George Bush had many choices on how to proceed to bring about a more peaceful and prosperous world, and further riding the world of security threats. At a strategic and operational level, it is now clear, for the interests of both Israel and the United States, that the decision to invade Iraq, the lack of a serious plan to bring about post-invasion regional security, the lack of a serious plan for investment in Iraqi civil society, has been a disaster and left the region much more unstable and dangerous than before.

The epic failure of Bush's democratization agenda as a regional strategy. Prior to going to Israel, I had believed that the President's "democratization" agenda was just a rhetorical facade for Western audiences to put a more pleasant face on his more imperial designs. But in Israel I learned that Bush and his foreign policy team actually believed in this agenda, and worked to carry it out in the region. They met with Arab heads of state, and told them that is was a new day and that they needed to open up their closed societies. They promoted elections in Iraq, which of course elected Shiite parties close to Iran and anathema to the region's Sunnis. And most consequentially, over the objection of the Israeli government, the Bush Administration allowed the participation of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah in elections in the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon without insisting that they give up their arms, recognize Israel's right to exist or renounce the killing of innocent civilians. Both Hamas and Hezbollah did well in their elections, and have now gained a degree of local, regional and international legitimacy - and political power - long denied them. The immediate impact was to plunge Lebanon into further political chaos, split the government of the PA into two and strengthen Iran's regional influence.

Again, what were they thinking?

As in Iraq, the Bush Administration seemed to believe that democracy itself had magical powers, that it was the act of electing a democratic leader which would bring about peaceful societies. But this idea is an extraordinary misreading of history. Hitler gained power through democratic elections. Chavez and Putin today, two of the world's most powerful autocrats, were elected. Fidel Castro is elected every few years in Cuba, getting, remarkably, all the votes cast. Elections themselves have never been sufficient to create open societies. The American formula, used so effectively to help bring modern and open societies to ever more of the world, was always more complex. It required free markets, personal liberty, the rule of law and yes democratic representation. Applying tried and true formula to the Middle East would have required Hamas and Hezbollah to renounce terror, recognize Israel, and demilitarize as a condition for participation in their elections. There can be no rule of law, no personal freedom if one of the major political parties in a nation keeps a private and well-funded private militia.

Bush's democratization agenda has become a joke in the Middle East. Israelis I spoke to saw it as a wildly naïve, dangerous concept and policy. This simplistic view of what builds complex, functioning, civil societies undermined both realistic planning for the peace in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli peace process. For it is harder to see today how meaningful peace can be brought to Israel and Palestine with he fanatics of the Hamas having control in Gaza and a newfound global legitimacy. Sunni Arabs have not exactly been inspired by the aftermath of our democratizing efforts in Iraq, which among other things strengthened the regional hand of Iran and the Shiites.

And, of course, once Hamas and Hezbollah had strong electoral showings, as many had predicted, the Bush Administration announced they would not work with these newly elected groups, further making the Bush call for democratization a hallow and cyniical one.

So also damaged in the Bush era is the whole idea of free and open societies themselves, as his loony vision of "democratization" has been instrumental in bringing further chaos and instability to an already troubled region. It will be vital that the next President, of whichever Party, restores the tried and true - and hard - vision of what it takes to build pluralistic, democratic and free nations.

The failure to lead the world in lessening its dependence on oil. There can be no doubt that the world's dependence on oil is itself becoming a grave security threat. We know the global environmental challenge a carbon-based economy offers. But we also have to come to terms with oil how many of the oil producing nations themselves - Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia - are becoming the main funders and purveyors of regional and global instability. And perversely, as the price of oil rises with the perception of global instability, these nations now have a national interest in maintaining or increasing the instability which fuels their economies and is the source of their regional and global power.

Hamas and Hezbollah are funded with Iranian oil money. Al Qaeda's start up capital came from a wealthy Saudi family, made rich by their relationship with the Saudi Royal family. Oil money funds the Madrassas which are radicalizing young Muslims around the world. Oil money is keeping dictators in power, preventing the modernization of many nations.

It is simply impossible to be for Israel and for a peaceful Middle East without also being for an enormous global effort to wean the world its debilitating addiction to oil. The Bush Administration's lack of leadership on climate change has in of itself strengthened the hand of the world's emerging petro-dictators, and lengthened their time of influence and power.

Bush's actions and rhetoric have made tens of millions of Europeans and Arabs much more anti-US and anti-Israeli. For many, the collective impact of the Axis of Evil war on terror language towards Muslims, the botched Iraq War, the lack of a commitment to lasting Arab-Israeli peace, the closeness of Bush and the Israeli government, and the sheer unpopularity of Bush himself has weakened the Israeli cause across the world, including in the United States. The Israelis are now seen not just aligned with the United States but one of the world's most unpopular and belligerent leaders. The UN may have once equated Zionism with racism, but now the world is essentially equating Zionism with Bushism, something that may be much more damaging for Israel than the infamous UN Resolution.

In my several days in Britain I was able to learn first hand how anti-Israeli many British elites have become. It was something I didn't expect, as it was a Brit almost a century ago who cleared the way for the early Israeli state, and Israel is the only nation in the entire Middle Eastern region which looks anything like a Western pluralistic democracy.

To sum up my trip to Israel left me excited about what a wonderful nation Israel has become, and worried about the worsening political situation around it. I have no doubt from my trip that the people of Israel are ready to accept a free and open Palestinian state, one that accepts Israel's right to exist, and one that does not launch attacks from across what we all hope will be a peaceful border. But years of historic and extraordinary failures of the Bush Administration have made the realization of a peaceful Middle East and a two state solution much more difficult, leading me to conclude that this American Administration has weakened our ally Israel and done damage to the hope of peace in the Middle East.

New Vote Vets Ad: "Real"

In a new ad, responds to Rush Limbaugh's claims that American soldiers who support an end to the war in Iraq are "phony" soldiers. (USA Today has more background on Limbaugh's claims and the reaction it has generated.) Check it out below:

Crises in Flushing and the Middle East

First off, I'd like to echo Simon's lament. I too am a Mets fan and was at Shea yesterday, watching the Mets get eliminated from the playoffs at the end of a historic collapse. 9 men on a field playing a boys game someone can feel larger than life. Unfortunately, yesterday, that left me feeling like I'd been punched in the gut, while other fans were celebrating just an hour and a half down the Jersey Turnpike. For Mets fans like us, the long wait until spring begins today. Congratulations to the Phillies, they earned the right to play under the bright lights of October.

More importantly - although it doesn't feel like it at the moment - is Sy Hersh's new article in this week's New Yorker "Shifting Target's The Administrations plan for Iran." It's an explosive and insightful piece that details dangerous changes in our Iran policy. Part of what elevates the piece is the contribution of a close friend of NDN's, Professor Vali Nasr of the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy. (You can see Simon's in-depth interview with Professor Nasr here.)

Professor Nasr is quoted repeatedly in the piece, and one section that stood out is his detailing of the risks of our current strategy of arming Sunni tribes in Anbar Provence, ostensibly to fight Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia:

Vali Nasr, of Tufts, called the internal displacement of communities in Iraq a form of “ethnic cleansing.”

“The American policy of supporting the Sunnis in western Iraq is making the Shia leadership very nervous,” Nasr said. “The White House makes it seem as if the Shia were afraid only of Al Qaeda—but they are afraid of the Sunni tribesmen we are arming. The Shia attitude is ‘So what if you’re getting rid of Al Qaeda?’ The problem of Sunni resistance is still there. The Americans believe they can distinguish between good and bad insurgents, but the Shia don’t share that distinction. For the Shia, they are all one adversary.”

As usual, Professor Nasr is a step ahead of everyone, including it would appear the people setting American policy towards the Middle East. I hope to hear more people asking these critical questions: are the short term gains derived from arming Sunnis in Anbar worth the medium and long term risks? And, are we really qualified to 'distinguish between good and bad insurgents?'

Democracy's "After Iraq" Panel

In response to the Petraeus/Crocker hearings, our good friends Kenneth Baer and Andrei Cherny over at Democracy are holding an important event worth checking out. To RSVP, call Democracy at 202-263-4382, or send an email to Further details are below:


General Petraeus' report to Congress and the current discussion about Iraq are focused on how many troops are deployed there, how effective they are, and when they're coming home. But what's missing from the popular debate is a discussion of what comes next. Once there is a significant drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, what should American strategy be in the Middle East?

In its fall issue released September 10, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas brings together an unprecedented collection of thirteen of the top progressive foreign policy thinkers writing on the critical topic: "What the U.S. should do once it leaves Iraq." Three of the authors will join us to discuss the future of American foreign policy in the Middle East. They are:

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute and editor of With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty.
Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic.

Kenneth Baer, co-editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, will moderate the panel.

The panelists will take audience questions as part of the discussion.

A light breakfast will be served.

Monday, September 17, 2007
9:30 AM - 11 AM

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The Root Room
1779 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20036

GAO report suggests little Iraq progress

In what is sure to be a major topic of debate, the Post reports on a leaked draft of an upcoming GAO report that suggests very little progress has been made in Iraq.  The story begins:

Iraq has failed to meet all but three of 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks for political and military progress, according to a draft of a Government Accountability Office report. The document questions whether some aspects of a more positive assessment by the White House last month adequately reflected the range of views the GAO found within the administration.

The strikingly negative GAO draft, which will be delivered to Congress in final form on Tuesday, comes as the White House prepares to deliver its own new benchmark report in the second week of September, along with congressional testimony from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. They are expected to describe significant security improvements and offer at least some promise for political reconciliation in Iraq.

Meanwhile the Times reports that the White House is upbeat about its chances to win the coming fall debate over our approach to the increasing turmoil in the Middle East.

NYTimes: "The Problem Isn't Mr. Maliki"

In its Friday editorial the New York Times argues that the problem in Iraq isn't Mr. Maliki. 

I agree.

Update: Maliki responds to his critics.  Attacks Senators Clinton and Levin by name. 

New Vote Vets Ad

VoteVets launched a new ad campaign that will target ten Members of Congress who are still "clinging to the failed Bush policy." The video below is the first in the series and targets Senator Susan Collins, asking her to put country above politics.

The VoteVets video is the counter to an ad campaign by Freedoms Watch, a White House Front Group whose founding members include the likes of Ari Fleischer, former White House Press Secretary. (More from The Politico) Their ad, "Veteran", is below:

Iraq battles Saudi Arabia - and wins (in soccer that is)

Coming just two days after the White House announced proposed arms sales to Sunni Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments to help counter the growing influence of Iran and the region's Shiites (including the ruling parties in Iraq), the Iraqi soccer team defeated Saudi Arabia today 1-0 to win the Asian Cup. 

The irony of all this is hard to overstate. 

For additional thoughts on the Iraqi soccer team, take a look at my post from the other day.  Anyone know how I can buy an Iraqi soccer jersey?

For some weekend thoughts on the emerging politics of the Middle East see my various posts below.

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