US Middle East Policy for 2008

Feb 19, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

February 19, 2008
Number 02/08 #07

This Update is devoted to pieces on likely US Middle East policy during the coming year, the final one of US President George Bush’s term of office.

We open with a rare plea uniting Israeli intellectual and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky with Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid. On the Israeli-Palestinian front, they say, it is important that Bush return to his earlier emphasis on democratisation if there is to be hope of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. In particular, they warn against the fixation on blindly supporting Abbas as a “moderate” unless accompanied by genuine reform, including democratisation and the institution of human rights norms in Palestinian society. For this important argument from two men worth listening to, CLICK HERE.

Next up, American foreign policy expert Dr. Harvey Sicherman, who served as an aide to three different secretaries of state, offers his detailed assessment of coming US Middle East policy based largely on President Bush’s trip to the region last month. He summarises both Washington’s Israeli-Palestinian hopes, and the attempts to firm up pressure on Iran in the wake of the NIE report in December, which damaged US strategy toward Iran. He points out the US hand is weak, but suggests three goals the US must seek in coming months in order to leave a good position for the next administration. To read it all, CLICK HERE.

Finally, former CIA analyst turned Middle East policy scholar Reuel Marc Gerecht offers up a long evaluation of the current state of US Middle East policy and President Bush’s potential historical legacy in the region. He concludes that, contrary to popular wisdom, achievements on Iraq and the overall war on terror currently look likely to be substantial, even if this is not immediately obvious. He is more doubtful regarding American policy and challenges on Israeli-Palestinian issues, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. To read all of his detailed and lengthy analysis, CLICK HERE. Gerecht also recently had some interesting comments on the argument that the Iraq war has turned huge numbers of Muslims into jihadist warriors, offering a strong counter-argument based on the comparison with the anti-Soviet Afghanistan war in the 1980s.

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Bush’s Mideast U-Turn

By Natan Sharansky and Bassem Eid

Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2008

On June 24, 2002, President Bush presented his vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. That we both would have greeted Mr. Bush’s speech with the same enthusiasm may come as a surprise.

One of us is a former Soviet dissident who spent nine years in the Gulag and, after joining his people in Jerusalem, spent a decade in Israeli political life, serving as a cabinet minister during most of that time. The other is a Palestinian who has devoted his life to exposing human rights abuses perpetrated against his people, regardless of whether the government committing those abuses was Israeli or Palestinian. One is a Jew convinced of his people’s just claim to the Land of Israel. The other is an Arab convinced of his people’s just claim to the same land.

Yet while we have real disagreements that would make an historic compromise very difficult and painful, we are fully in agreement that the only path to peace lies in building a free Palestinian society — a path Mr. Bush boldly laid out in his historic speech.

Unfortunately, encouraged by short-sighted Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Bush administration, now entering its final year in office, has resuscitated the failed policies of the past that have brought nothing but tragedy, terror and war and that have only pushed peace further away.

The real breakthrough of Mr. Bush’s vision five-and-a-half years ago was not his call for a two-state solution or even the call for Palestinians to “choose leaders not compromised by terror.” Rather, the breakthrough was in making peace conditional on a fundamental transformation of Palestinian society: “I call upon [Palestinians] to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts. . . . A Palestinian state will never be created by terror — it will be built through reform. And reform must be more than cosmetic change, or veiled attempt to preserve the status quo. True reform will require entirely new political and economic institutions, based on democracy, market economics and action against terrorism.”

Many critics argued at the time that linking the peace process to a transformation of Palestinian society was a radical departure in peacemaking. It was. And it was long overdue.

What had guided policymakers for the previous decade was the idea that a “moderate” Palestinian leader who would fight terror and make peace with Israel needed to be “strengthened” at all costs. Yasser Arafat was their moderate. He was given territory, weapons, money and a warm diplomatic embrace.

Completely ignored was what was happening within Palestinian society. As Arafat was hollowing out civil society, handing control of the economy to corrupt cronies, squirreling away billions of dollars into his private accounts, trampling on the rights of his own people, and using PA-controlled media and schools to indoctrinate a generation into a culture of hatred, the international community’s bear hug only tightened. Indeed, Arafat’s emerging dictatorship was seen as an asset in the peace process. Here was the “strong” leader, it was argued, who could make a deal. Nothing should be done to weaken him.

Mr. Bush’s speech was supposed to change all this. It was supposed to shift the focus to where it should have always been: on helping Palestinians build a decent society that would protect the rights of their own people and promote peace with its neighbors. It was supposed to begin the hard work of helping Palestinians reconstruct their civil society, build a free economy, establish real courts, reform their security services, and revamp their educational system.

President Bush deserves much credit for placing a spotlight on the issues of democracy and human rights and for his firm belief that the advance of freedom is critical for international peace and stability. He made this idea a focus of his second inaugural address and reiterated it last June in Prague at a conference of dissidents from around the world. Last month, President Bush did not flinch from speaking about freedom and human rights in the heart of Arabia.

But the past few years have shown that when it comes to dealing with Israelis and Palestinians, the vital link between freedom and peace is almost entirely ignored. True, the administration is not doing anything against the wishes of the current Israeli and Palestinian leadership. But just as the Oslo peace process of the 1990s was a disaster that Israeli and Palestinian leaders wholeheartedly embraced, the current peacemaking round will prove equally disastrous because it ignores what is most important.

Rather than begin the long and difficult process to transform Palestinian society and ultimately pave the road to peace, the administration has consistently supported quick and foolish solutions: from crafting a “road map” that only paid lip service to reform; to backing a unilateral disengagement that by its nature ignored Palestinian society; to pressing for snap elections that preceded rather than followed reform and thereby brought Hamas to power.

When Arafat passed from the scene, we hoped that the Bush vision would finally be given a chance. But all that has happened is that President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) and Prime Minister Salam Fayad have become the new “moderates” who need to be strengthened at all costs. Rather than establish a clear link between support for the PA and reform, and openly embrace the genuine Palestinian reformers who are the democratic world’s true allies, Abu Mazen is promised billions despite having done nothing. With the media entirely under his control, incitement continues and no one raises serious objections. He is, we are told, too “weak” to take action.

A few weeks ago, in a meeting with a high ranking official responsible for European foreign policy, one of us (Mr. Sharansky) spoke about the need to support the work of the other (Mr. Eid) in promoting democracy and human rights in the Palestinian territories. After the European leader expressed his deep commitment to peace, democracy and human rights, he asked the all important question: “What is his [Mr. Eid’s] relationship to Abu Mazen?” After hearing that it was strained because of constant criticism of Abu Mazen’s failure to reform, the official’s enthusiasm quickly evaporated. “That will be a problem. We cannot do anything that will undermine Abu Mazen.” This new-old attitude reminds one of the absurdity of those who refused to support democratic dissidents behind the Iron Curtain because they were undermining their leaders.

President Bush should spend his final year in office helping Palestinians begin the transformation of their society so that the vision he once spoke of so eloquently will have a chance to come to fruition some day. We have wasted too much time strengthening leaders and reaching for the moon. Let’s start strengthening Palestinian society and begin a real peace process once and for all.

Mr. Eid is executive director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Mr. Sharansky is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies.


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Bush, the Nudge-in-Chief

by Harvey Sicherman

Foreign Policy Research Institute eNotes, Jan. 2008

President Bush’s long-awaited and much-demanded personal engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian tangle has finally begun. Visiting Jerusalem and Ramallah in early January 2008, he announced his role: Nudge-in-Chief. Then, refreshed by visits to the wellsprings of Christianity, the President reiterated his (faith-based) conclusion that a treaty enshrining the two-state solution could be reached by the end of his tenure. But this was not the main purpose of his regional visit.

The November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear weapons program had angered and confused U.S. allies in the Gulf. And simultaneously the evident success of General Petraeus’ surge in Iraq was in danger of being wasted by the paralysis of the Maliki government. Here, too, the President exercised the nudge, trying to keep in play his main policies, including the by now heavily discounted “freedom agenda.”

Renewing the Faith

Bush’s visit to the Middle East came six weeks after the relaunch of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at Annapolis. Each of the players had then returned to old bad habits, as if to reassure their audiences that no new acts were in store. The Israeli bureaucracy announced new apartment construction for areas of greater Jerusalem, angering the Americans and Palestinians while taking no action on old promises to dismantle illegal outposts. Rocket firings from Gaza and the killing of two Israelis on the West Bank by security men employed by the Palestinian Authority reminded the world of the unfulfilled Palestinian pledges to suppress violence. Meanwhile, no final status talks commenced. And those supposed supporters of the Annapolis process, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, facilitated the movement of Gaza pilgrims to Mecca through Egyptian rather than Israeli or Palestinian Authority checkpoints, thereby harming both Abbas’ plans to gain some credit and Israel’s desire to keep money from reaching Hamas-controlled areas. The hope of Annapolis was fading fast.

Bush began the revival in Israel, one of those few countries where the President remains popular. He was received with the goodwill and enthusiasm that befitted a friend. Neither a beneficiary of the U.S.-Jewish vote nor known as a supporter of Israel before becoming President, Bush had taken Israel’s side in the second intifada, on the Iranian threat, and during the second Lebanon War. His 2005 letter to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon endorsed retention of some of the 1967 territories and negated the return of large numbers of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Bush also supported Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza.

Still, the United States and Israel disagreed on important matters. Most of Israel’s leaders had never been enthusiastic about the Iraq War (Iran was the real threat) and regarded U.S. promotion of Arab democracy as naive, even dangerous. Prime Minister Olmert’s proclamation notwithstanding, neither Israel’s security establishment nor popular opinion saw in Abbas’ Palestinian Authority a partner capable of delivering peace. And on Syria, the Israelis appeared ready to deal with Damascus even at Lebanon’s expense, possibly because, unlike Bush or the French, they put little stock in the lasting power of Beirut’s tenuous democracy.

The Americans had their own differences with the Israelis. A negotiated rather than unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was preferred by the State Department. For its part, the White House was deeply disappointed by Israel’s mishandling of the 2006 Lebanon War, fumbling an opportunity to deal a heavy strategic blow to Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria. Both countries had been at odds over Israeli arms exports to China. And there were doubts in Washington over the Olmert government’s staying power and capacity to deliver on its promises.

George W. Bush swept much of this aside in his by now characteristic mix of direct talk and brimming confidence. On the evening of January 9, 2008, after meeting with Olmert, Bush described a three-track process (“the vision track,” the “Roadmap issues,” and “help the Palestinians” prepare for statehood. Later he would add a fourth, “support from other Arab states”). He would not “butt in and actually dictate the end result of the agreement.” Instead he would be “nudging them forward….” The next day, after nudging both sides, Bush read a written statement that summarized the U.S. outline of a final agreement. The two-state solution meant a “homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people.” Israel should have “secure, recognized, and defensible borders”; the Palestinian state should be “viable, contiguous, and sovereign and independent.”

Bush added a “painful political concessions” category to this familiar theology that included “mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous.” Translation: no Israeli return to the 1967 lines and territorial swaps to compensate the Palestinians for the largest Israeli settlement blocs. Bush also wanted “new international mechanisms, including compensation, to resolve the refugee issue.” Translation: as implied by the earlier reference to Israel as a Jewish State, no wholesale return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Finally after repeating Israeli and Palestinian obligations to the Roadmap, Bush took a pass on Jerusalem, thereby returning the contested city to its traditional position in the order of issues to be negotiated—last. This certainly eased Olmert’s coalition situation.

Bush’s “nudge” had a preplanned effect, and largely on the Israelis. Olmert agreed to commence final status talks even though neither he nor Abbas had fulfilled, had any intention to fulfill, or could fulfill entirely the Roadmap’s strictures on settlements or violence. Some of the illegal settlements would be removed. Abbas, for his part, had been freshly strengthened by international pledges at the Paris Conference in December that exceeded $6 billion in assistance if Palestinian reforms and changes on the ground would warrant it. Other than reaffirming support for Prime Minister Fayyad’s reform plans, Abbas had little to give and gave nothing. Bush’s appointment of Lt. Gen. William Fraser to monitor the Roadmap, and the Blair Mission to prepare the Palestinian Authority for statehood, were reminders of how much there remained to do and how little time—Bush’s time—was left to do it.

The United States, however, could not help either Olmert or Abbas with their most pressing political and military problem—Hamas-run Gaza. There, assisted by Egypt’s reluctance to seal the border and benefiting from Hezbollah’s experience, the various gunmen and militias were rapidly becoming a more disciplined and capable force, using Palestinian civilians in Gaza as shields and Israeli civilians as targets. Their inaccurate missiles and mortars were improving in range and number. Thus, even while Bush, Olmert, and Abbas spoke of peace, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and others were fighting a war of attrition with Israel. During Bush’s eight days in the Middle East, the Palestinian side fired eighty-four rockets into Israel; the IDF, for its part, took an increasing toll of the leaders and organizers, killing thirty. Hamas sought a cease-fire to allow them to consolidate and become a redoubt like Hezbollah in southern Lebanon before the 2006 war. Israeli wanted to prevent Hamas from achieving a Hezbollah capability but without using either massive firepower or a large ground invasion. The outcome of this struggle carried significant consequences for the “two-state” solution. A Hamas victory in Gaza would make it impossible for Israel to leave the West Bank lest Hamas attempt to duplicate its success. An Israeli reoccupation of Gaza would extinguish Palestinian hope for independence anytime soon.

Resounding the Alarm

Bush’s next stops were dictated by events in Washington. On December 3, 2007, the White House had published a declassified part of the November NIE on Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons. The NIE found that Iran had stopped its known nuclear weapons program in Fall 2003; that this had come about primarily because of international pressure; but that Tehran still kept “open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” the latter judgment asserted with “moderate to high confidence.”

NIEs, composite documents reflecting some sort of consensus by sixteen intelligence agencies, have become a sore subject in Washington during the Bush Administration. An earlier one from 2002, warning of Iraq’s WMD capability, turned out to be quite erroneous. Another, from 2005, claimed Iran was in hot pursuit of nuclear weapons. The new one seemed to invalidate it. Moreover, the NIE, while concentrating on the “weapons program” relegated to a footnote the observation that the authors “did not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”

Various analysts, the IAEA, and European officials were quick to point out that the footnote had indeed been the real focus of policy. Warheads and missiles, the other components of a nuclear weapons program, meant little if there were no enrichment. Hence, the U.N. Security Council had been sanctioning Iran because of its refusal to cease such enrichment. Was the NIE therefore implying that, the weapons program having ended, Iranian intentions were now benign?

Well, no. But the political implication was to deny the Bush Administration a reason to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities on the grounds that they were part of a military program. This was a stunning blow to the President’s own rhetoric about the Iranian danger, and the need to keep “all options” on the table. Washington was rife with rumors that the latest NIE took revenge on an Administration that, in the eyes of many intelligence analysts, had abused the product earlier. As had been the case since 2003, such open warfare diminished confidence at home and abroad in the White House and the CIA.

Bush’s visit to the Arab Gulf States therefore had as its largest purpose a negation of the NIE by resounding the alarm about Iran and reassuring the loose anti-Iranian coalition that the United States would neither slacken pressure for further economic sanctions nor publicly exclude the military option.

Freedom as Destiny

The Gulf States and then Saudi Arabia, where the President spent two days with King Abdallah, offered legendary hospitality made even more opulent by the recent rise of oil prices. Bush’s strictures on Iran found a ready enough audience but there were doubts whether the military option, if there were one, would be exercised by the United States or Israel. Inevitably, the President’s hosts had also begun hedging bets against the uncertainties of an American election year through private and public overtures to Iran, suggesting that better relations were available if Tehran were open to compromises. Bush’s foreign policy had simply not been very helpful in the eyes of the various kings and princes of the Sunni Arab world who saw American blunders in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian issue redound to Shiite and Iranian advantage. Incomprehensibly, Washington was also pushing a “freedom agenda” that promised to reduce the domestic authority of the very family dynasties allied with the United States.

Bush pressed on, nonetheless. His centerpiece speech on January 13 in the shimmering ballroom of the $3 billion Emirates Palace Hotel reprised his views of the world and the Middle East. The region was at risk because of a lack of freedom and justice. (This latter phrase was a concession to Muslim sensibilities that “freedom” properly understood meant “justice.”) Everyone who believed in these principles had to oppose the fanatics and the Iranian regime: “the fight against the forces of extremism is the great ideological struggle of our time.” Bush also repeated his faith that God was on the side of those who fought for freedom.

There were a few needles. Bush reminded his audience that the “talent of the people” was a greater resource than “oil in the ground.” The Gulf States, however, owed their success to oil in the ground; foreign technicians to pump and sell; and “guestworkers” outnumbering their own citizens to do the rest. These royal and princely successors to fishermen, small merchants, and desert chiefs had never relied on the talent of the people, although all had pledged themselves to prepare more capable societies—especially Saudi Arabia—against the day when oil ran out or was replaced as the fuel of choice. That, however, was a distant horizon.

The President drew his favorite analogy. Just as the United States had transformed Japan after World War II into a democracy in a land where that was thought impossible, so this could be done in the Arab lands. The system might not look like the American one but it could be democratic. Bush’s audience must have wondered whether this meant the United States would have troops in Iraq for the next fifty years. And they surely wished that their societies would not become democracies like the one they saw in Iraq.


Bush concluded his visit with a quick trip to Egypt, where he and President Mubarak gave the usual cliches the usual recycle. The President spent but a few hours with the Egyptian leader, provoking unseemly comparisons with the two days lavished on the Saudi King. Egyptians bridle at the idea that the United States should regard Saudi Arabia as the “leader” of the Arabs, but neither Riyadh nor Cairo have distinguished themselves lately in helping American interests. The Saudi-brokered Mecca Accord between Hamas and Fatah legitimized Hamas, quite contrary to American expectations. Then Hamas violated it by seizing Gaza. For its part, Egypt has disappointed and angered both the United States and Israel through its reluctant enforcement of border control. As if to remind Washington of this reality, on January 23, Hamas broke through the Egyptian border, using recently smuggled cash to afford the besieged population a massive shopping spree, and probably also included the infiltration of new combatants and weapons. In the wake of Bush’s visit, Hamas and behind it Damascus and Tehran threatened to veto not only Cairo’s freedom of action on the Palestinian issue but also the Annapolis process.

The Nudge-in-Chief promised to return in the spring. But the President will have to come to grips with the inevitable decline in his leverage as his last year runs out. Bush has proposed daunting objectives: a democratic Palestine at peace with Israel; an Iran that renounces nuclear ambitions and terrorism; a pacified Iraq; a free Lebanon. To make headway on these matters, the United States must do at least the following:


    1. Spend the next ninety days in making palpable changes for the better on “the ground” between Israel and the Palestinians, a project that must be preserved against the storms from Gaza. Otherwise the parties are unlikely to be ready for more than a “nudge” in the late summer when both of them and the United States will have to make a run for final agreement.


    1. Go beyond the U.N. economic sanctions with European and Asian allies to hurt Iran while persuading Tehran that the U.S. military option is still available. Otherwise the anti-Iranian coalition will continue to dissipate and pressure to make deals with Iran will mount.


    1. Press the Maliki government very hard to realize the promise of the Petraeus strategy while fending off demands for premature troop reductions. If not, the benefits of the “surge” may be lost and both the Sunni and Shiite militias will resume their depredations.



By the standards of statecraft, the Bush Administration is now playing with a weak hand. In the time remaining, however, the President can leave to his successor a stronger hand than he has now. Given the stakes, both Republican and Democratic candidates should pray Bush succeeds.

Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is president of FPRI and a former aide to three U.S. secretaries of state.


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A New Middle East, After All

By Reuel Marc Gerecht

The Weekly Standard 
Publication Date: February 18, 2008

George W. Bush staked his presidency on his response to 9/11: on the proposition that the United States had to defeat the virulent forces loose in the Muslim world directly and militarily. In his last State of the Union address, delivered shortly after his first and only grand tour of the Middle East, Bush reaffirmed his intention to continue the fight everywhere he has committed American arms. It is way too soon to give the president a final grade, and it is surely tempting to flunk him, given the high-wire act the country has endured in Iraq. The denizens of the Middle East, however, will remember Bush as the most momentous American leader since an angry Thomas Jefferson sent men-of-war in pursuit of the Barbary pirates. His successor will not be able to walk away from what he has wrought. Let us consider the issues one by one–leaving aside for another day Iran and the menace of a Persian bomb.


The surge’s success has put the administration more or less on autopilot: Neither Bush, nor his general, David Petraeus, nor a chastened Democratic Congress is going to abandon the surge through hasty troop reductions before Bush leaves office. Although the White House often seems bedeviled by the task of defining “victory” in Iraq, it really isn’t that hard. Flawed and ugly as it is, Iraqi democracy stumbles forward. The Shiite and Sunni Arabs are slowly establishing representative political arrangements within their own communities that allow some diversity of opinion. With America’s indispensable oversight, Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds are gradually and painfully checking their worst passions and ambitions. As each community conquers its own demons, Iraqis develop the sentiments and patience to work across the sectarian divides. Given the totalitarian hell that was Saddam’s Iraq, the violence that came with his fall, American negligence from 2003 to 2007, and the hostility of Tehran and the nearby Arab rulers to an American-midwifed democratic Iraq, this is an amazing achievement. The court intellectuals in Cairo, Riyadh, and Damascus usually treat the new Iraq with contempt and distortion, but they know that a democratic Iraq, even one born of the sin of American occupation, defies autocracy throughout the region.

Although the success of the counterinsurgency has opened up many avenues for political progress, the challenges remain large.
Given the forces arrayed against Bush, his administration’s failures, and his own limitations, these are achievements even Ronald Reagan would envy.

The still unscheduled referendum in which the people of Kirkuk and its environs are to vote on the status of that multiethnic city could possibly throw the north of the country into chaos. The Kurds will be tenacious about their “Jerusalem.” Although they are somewhat disingenuous in their intentions, the Kurds want unchallenged control over Kirkuk’s oil and would strongly prefer to have fewer Arabs living among them, especially Arabs who moved into Kurdish homes emptied by Saddam Hussein. Underestimating the passion of ethnically based nationalism has a bloody history, and Iraq’s Kurds are a passionate, much-abused people. They will not allow Tamim province, which has Kirkuk’s oil, to slip from their control to the central government’s.

Yet odds are the Kurdish political elite, who have done very well since the invasion and are acutely aware of Turkish, Iranian, and Iraqi Arab sensitivities about Kurdish nationalism, will continue to be sufficiently measured in their drive for independence to keep all hell from breaking loose. Right now, Kirkuk is a back-burner issue in the increasingly vibrant Iraqi political discussions. (Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds who would not have spoken to each other six months ago for fear of being murdered if caught in late-evening chats in “enemy” territory are now having civil exchanges all over Baghdad.) The Kurds know they could lose a referendum on Kirkuk at this time; Kurdish efforts to drive out and silence the potential “no” vote have not yet been sufficiently successful. Nonetheless, the Bush administration would be wise to have a rapid-reaction force ready to preempt Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen animosities in the north.

Since the surge has now reached the city of Mosul, just south of Kurdistan, it’s a good time for the administration to suggest to the Kurds that the United States takes a dim view of land grabs not effected legally under the Iraqi constitution. Any Kurdish ethnic cleansing should be countered forcefully. The Kurds have no desire to confront U.S. troops, so a clear threat of force should keep the peace. And as long as Kurdish acquisitiveness is kept in check, a powerful Sunni-Shiite Arab alliance against the Kurds is unlikely. One of the surge’s successes is that it has allowed for Kurdish-Arab problems to be worked out peacefully. In the process, a functioning, decentralized Iraq has started to take shape.

When provincial elections are finally held across Iraq, possibly this year, the Sunnis, too, may start to claim a bigger stake in a more representative political system in provinces where they dominate, if not in the country at large. Much more than national legislation (such as that recently enacted allowing more former Baathists to receive their pensions and reenter the government work force), provincial elections should spur meaningful reconciliation. Elections will help the Sunni Arabs create new political groupings that reflect who they are more accurately than their present national parties. And elections should help them recapture a healthier national consciousness and identify a more legitimate post-Saddam national elite.

Elections may provoke some violence. Indeed, preparing for both the provincial elections and the national elections due in 2009 will likely check any American effort to draw down U.S. forces significantly before 2010. Yet internecine Sunni battles sparked by elections are likely to be limited. The Sunni Arabs have always known that they need to hang together to survive the greater demographic and geographic weight of the Shiites and Kurds. This instinct–which once led the community to embrace al Qaeda and other extremists–will now, with the success of their own anti-al Qaeda “Awakening,” likely keep intra-Sunni violence at bearable levels. Indeed, decisively losing the 2006-07 Battle of Baghdad has had a sobering effect on the community–witness the Sunni confessions, reported in both Western and Arab media, about how the insurgency, “misled” by al Qaeda, went too far in killing Shiites.

Perhaps the biggest danger for Iraq is that the success of the Awakening will breed a renewed Sunni hubris. The historic sense of Sunni entitlement, the Sunni Arabs’ belief in their own martial and moral superiority over Shiites, was fuel for the insurgency. If the Sunnis’ successful fight against al Qaeda also awakens a desire for round two with the Shia, then we will return quickly to where we were before General Petraeus took command. Provincial elections, and the campaigning around them, will indicate whether the Sunnis are now willing to let go of “their” Iraq.

Slowly and reluctantly, the Shiite-led government is incorporating the Sunni Awakening groups in Baghdad into the capital’s police force. Now the government must also find a way to incorporate Anbar province’s Awakening forces into a loose federal police structure, and the American Army must maintain payments to these new Sunni militias if the Shiite-led government refuses to do so. If the Shia see that these defense forces do not intend to challenge the government militarily–and this will take time–then a slow federalization of these disparate militias is possible. Patience, pressure, finesse, and a constant flow of American cash will be required to ensure the Awakening does not spook the Shiite community, which remains leery of former Baathists and al Qaeda supporters who have recently changed sides. The American embassy will have to work to persuade the government to absorb these units, tribe by tribe, town by town, into constabularies paid by Baghdad.

On the Shiite side, provincial elections carry risks. There has been considerable Shiite-on-Shiite violence, more than has been reported by the much diminished Western press in Baghdad. The Shia are likely to continue to fight among themselves, especially in the south, where there are no U.S. forces. These duels, which occur between Iraq’s two largest Shiite forces–the Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC, formerly SCIRI)–and a variety of local armed groups have always had the potential for catapulting the Shiite community into large-scale strife.

This violence has so far been contained, primarily for two reasons: U.S. forces are still all over the central Shiite provinces and can decisively take sides in Shiite battles if they choose to, and the clerical establishment led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has used its influence to discourage violent factionalism. Lasting stability will likely come through big Shiite political parties that pay due respect to the clerical establishment. Although decentralization and federalism make sense for the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs, it’s difficult to see how intra-Shiite federalism could play out happily. Basra’s violence hasn’t infected the Shiite north in part because the sentiments and allegiances of the city and the surrounding countryside really are distinctive. Trying to separate Baghdad, however, from the central Shiite regions, as some Shiite leaders recommend, seems a recipe for more violence, not less. Already, petty warlordism has emerged among the Shia, and it could spread if the Shiite leadership renounced a compelling national idea. In an oil-rentier state where oil wealth, at least outside Kurdistan, will first go to the central government, any attempt to formally subdivide the Shiites could turn into a nightmare.

Despite their often fiery national and Arab consciousness, the Iraqi Shia have no national institutions aside from their clerical establishment, which has always been weak in the south. And the south illustrates what can happen among them when national and foreign forces are insufficient to counter entropy. For the Shia, then, depending on the location, provincial elections may weaken national consciousness and fortify those elements–especially Iranian influence–that we want diminished.

Nevertheless, provincial elections also hold out considerable promise for Iraq’s largest community. The big Shiite parties desperately need to be more attentive to local concerns; they need to think more about potholes, schools, and electricity and less about the elite, highly personal, “Green Zone” politics of Baghdad. In the all-important central regions of Iraq, which will determine the fate of the country, the clerics of Najaf appear to be still strong on the ground. Local elections may enhance the power of the peace-promoting traditional scholars of Islamic law.

Most important, a lot of Iraqis, especially Arabs, are mad about the unresponsiveness of the national government. They want to see more representative government. Many Shiites, especially among the southern tribes, want to see local government develop that isn’t held hostage to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Sadrists, or the Iranians. Without American forces in the south, it will be difficult to stop these three from intimidating voters. Yet at the very least, provincial elections will force competition among all the parties. They will advance the democratic dynamic and prepare the ground for the all-important national elections.

Provincial elections, even if deeply flawed, should help develop local urban elites, who, before the coming of the modern dictatorships, were the key to stability and basic decency in the Middle East. With American help, these elites might be willing and able to change Iraq’s electoral system from one based on party lists to one based on districts in time for the national elections of 2009. Although party list systems have certain advantages in violent societies, district systems are conducive to stronger local leadership and more attentive national parties. This change would greatly benefit Iraq–another reason the Bush administration should push hard for provincial elections this year. That second turn at the urns at the national level is critical for cementing the democratic ethic in any country. The Bush administration needs to do everything in its power to help the Iraqis have robust, competitive national elections in 2009.

Despite the horrendous violence of 2006 and 2007, the Shiite commitment to the political system remains intact. The Shiite-on-Shiite killing since 2007 may have actually helped: The forces allied to Moktada al-Sadr have fared poorly in direct collisions with the Shiite-led Iraqi army and the Badr Corps, the military wing of SIIC, the best-organized Shiite religious party. Sadr plays more politics now than he did two years ago, when the destruction of the Shiite shrine at Samarra plunged Iraq into a bloodbath. Like his much beloved, murdered father, Sadr is throwing his movement into social work. There is still a big military potential to this–young men organized into self-help societies can be turned into paramilitary forces. But Sadr, at least in Baghdad and the central Euphrates valley, is recasting himself as a peaceful, die-hard anti-American patriot. He is reportedly trying to become a more accomplished student of Iranian religious jurisprudence, a sure sign that Sadr is politically stuck. He cannot humble himself to go to school in Iraq–his scholastic credentials are too weak, and he is too disliked by the traditional clergy to attend his country’s great religious schools. So he reaches out to Iran, hardly a winning political strategy for one whose appeal lies partly in his fiery Arab-Iraqi nationalism.

And Sadr’s principal antagonist–Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SIIC–seems even more committed to the political process than Sadr. Hakim’s uncle is one of the four grand ayatollahs of Najaf and probably the most influential after Sistani, the Iranian émigré who has become since 2003 the most beloved and respected ayatollah in the Shiite world. And Hakim himself has grown increasingly attentive to the concerns of Najaf since he returned from Iranian exile nearly five years ago.

With the possible exception of the prime minister, no Shiite politician is viewed as more accountable than Hakim for the successes and failures of the current government. If the Shia are unhappy with the government, the backlash could hit Hakim and his party fairly hard. The Najaf connection is his lifeline since Sistani, who has pushed and defined the democratic process more than anyone else, can guarantee that Hakim stays politically relevant even if popular dissatisfaction with the government grows. Given his personal limitations–he is neither an accomplished cleric nor a charismatic personality–Hakim is unlikely to derail the Bush administration or its successor with his personal ambition.

This said, one can wonder whether General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s decision to side so clearly with Hakim’s Badr Corps over the disparate parts of Sadr’s Mahdi army is astute. The SIIC’s grassroots support may not be deep (provincial elections will help us know). Many faithful Iraqi Shiites have concerns about the SIIC’s Iranian connections. Although its men serve in the Iraqi army, the Badr and the army are not the same. Iranian connections to the Badr are still strong–the ruling Iranian clergy has always put high value on nurturing foreign clienteles. General Petraeus is doing the best he can with too few troops, and picking proxies is an inevitable part of this surge.

Yet when Iraqis think about Hakim, they think first and foremost of his family’s corruption and behind-the-scenes power. The Arabic word Ittilaat, “intelligence service,” is often used to describe Hakim’s SIIC. That’s not a good sign. Militarily strong on the ground in the holy city of Najaf, Hakim and SIIC could envelop Grand Ayatollah Sistani, using both subtle physical intimidation and praise to ensure his support. Sistani is a cautious man; all lose in Iraq if he is de facto held hostage. It would be best not to tempt fate by fortifying too much the Badr Corps, an institution that could conceivably mutate into an Iraqi version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, of which it once was part.

The immediate priority for the Bush administration should be to encourage the passage of a provincial-election law, then to speed the administrative preparations for a vote, which will take several months. These elections should breathe fresh air into Iraq’s national politics and put purple index fingers again all over Middle Eastern television screens. Since the invasion, America’s prestige has never been higher. The renewed mystique may not last. Many in Washington, especially inside the Pentagon and the leadership of the Democratic party, may resist holding provincial elections because they are likely to prevent big reductions in U.S. forces before 2010. But the president must realize this is probably a make-or-break issue for Iraqi democracy.

By the hair of his chinny-chin-chin, President Bush will probably leave office with a sputtering but functioning democratic system in Mesopotamia. Accepted wisdom now holds that the ripple effect from Iraq, if there is one, is all bad. In Europe this is mostly true. The loss of Tony Blair’s Britain as a reliable and gutsy ally is perhaps the most regrettable by-product of Iraq in Europe. A second-rate military power, the United Kingdom was never going to be able to cope with a stressful, violent occupation. Our “special relationship” will continue, especially in the area of counterterrorism, where the United States has grown closer to every European security service since 2003. But Iraq has accelerated a distancing of American and British political elites.

In the Middle East, however, it is not clear that America’s position has suffered that much from the invasion. Perhaps with Iran: More Americans might be willing to entertain the idea of preventive military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities if the Bush administration had not done so poorly in Mesopotamia. But that issue aside, ripples from Iraq could still turn out to be more positive than negative, perhaps decisively so.

Al Qaeda and the War on Terrorism

Contrary to the views of most counterterrorism experts and most Democrats, the war against Islamic extremism has probably seen a pivotal victory in Iraq. Unlike 9/11 or the bombings in Madrid and London, the Second Iraq War, with its ferocious Muslim-on-Muslim violence, has actually provoked some deep reflection about holy war among the faithful in the Middle East. Although the situation could still unravel and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia could get a new lease on life, the fight against that organization, and the Sunnis’ second thoughts about their zeal against the Shia, have shaken Arabs’ easy characterization of this war as a war against American occupation.

To begin with, Al Qaeda central – Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri – know they are in trouble. The war has produced a small epistolary avalanche of tactical recalculations and spiritual appeals to brother Muslims to focus the fight on American infidels. Iraq was supposed to break the United States. This was, in bin Laden’s words, “a war over the destiny of the entire umma [the worldwide Muslim community].” Instead, Iraq is becoming a serious setback, if not a spiritual Waterloo, for the Muslim world’s most feared and most respected jihadists. As bin Laden conceded about the Iraqi jihad, “Allah only knows what sort of ramifications it holds for Islam and its people.”

In his December 29 declaration on Iraq, bin Laden savagely attacked Sunnis who are working with the Americans, calling them guilty of “clear infidelity and an open apostasy.” Abu Ahmad al-Baghdadi, a spokesman for one of the Sunni insurgent groups, didn’t buy this. He told Al Jazeera, the pro-Sunni, pro-insurgent Arabic satellite TV channel, that “Al Qaeda in Iraq has become a hand that destroys the Sunnis. Many Sunnis have been killed by them. Al Qaeda in Iraq is a source of corruption. . . . They always direct their weapons at innocent civilians.” Al-Baghdadi had no difficulty throwing the Prophet Muhammad back at bin Laden: Why shouldn’t Sunnis make a truce with the Americans when “the Prophet made a truce” with nonbelievers?

Commentary like this influences Muslim attitudes far more than all of America’s public-diplomacy outreach; it is worth far more, too, than the soft-power appeal of any Barack Obama signaling his empathy with the downtrodden of the Third World.

Although Senators Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joseph Biden would rather burn in oil than give George Bush credit for his insistence on linking the war in Iraq to the battle against Islamic extremism, the president has damaged al Qaeda–and al Qaeda has damaged itself–more in Mesopotamia than on any other battlefield. Al Qaeda will live on in the forbidding mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and from there it may do horrendous harm to the United States and its European allies. But if al Qaeda is ever to evanesce, it will be because its jihadism lost its ethical appeal in the Arab heartland where it was born. American and Pakistani paramilitary successes against al Qaeda will never be sufficient to demonstrate the organization’s evil to Muslims worldwide. Indeed, Pakistan’s ineffectual attempts to assert control over tribal border areas have been counterproductive, giving bin Laden a fillip of hope at a time when his jihad is facing decided difficulty in Iraq.

By contrast, it is democracy in Iraq, as bin Laden correctly foresaw, that would be toxic to his cause: Few ideas elicit from him more venom. It is one of the great ironies of the war that President Bush, a man not known for perusing much primary material, actually did read bin Laden’s declarations about Iraq and did consider his ideas. It is by no means clear Bush’s antiwar critics ever have. We have not been able to counter the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian intellectual engines of jihadism against the United States; this would be difficult even if Bush’s State Department actually tried it. But what we have done is help Iraqis grope their way toward democracy, even as al Qaeda’s cruelty has rallied Iraqis to fight at our side.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

A year ago George W. Bush was the first American president to be on the way to losing two wars simultaneously. Now, he may be losing only one. The good news is that the administration knows it’s in trouble in Afghanistan.

Even with the strain of Iraq, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will likely increase troop levels sufficiently to parry the resurgent Taliban where it matters most. Afghanistan was always going to be an extraordinary test of American will. If the United States remains in Iraq for at least a decade (a pretty safe bet), it’s likely to be in Afghanistan much longer.

Afghanistan is already proving too much for most of our NATO allies, who are hunkering down–and, in the case of the Spanish and Italians, “secretly” dealing with the Taliban in an effort to deflect violence from their troops. (One former senior Spanish official calls this “preemptive surrender.”) With the mountainous tribal lands of Pakistan as a safe haven, Afghanistan’s Pashtun Taliban–many of its members actually born in Pakistan’s refugee camps and educated in its religious schools–was always going to recover. It is probably too late for President Bush to develop a new policy toward Pakistan. To do so, he would have to ignore the counsel of the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, and Washington’s unofficial foreign-policy establishment, which remain more or less wedded to a pre-9/11 alignment of the United States with the Pakistani military–our “essential” but fragile ally against al Qaeda. We will soon see the denouement of our post-9/11 counterterrorist training of the Pakistani Army: Openly or discreetly, we must pray that it can wear down the Islamic extremists who control the tribal lands and are challenging Islamabad in the neighboring North-West Frontier Province.

A more effective, though nerve-racking, strategy would have had the United States use ground and air strikes inside Pakistan since 2002 to punish those aiding the rebirth of the Taliban. We should have been more focused on actually killing al Qaeda, the Taliban, and those in Pakistan who support them. Soon we could be in a worse position than we were before 9/11, with Afghan and Pakistani militants plotting and training without real fear of American harassment. Given the growing extremist presence there, the North-West Frontier Province may be destined to experience years of suicide bombings and insurgent attacks. This probably can’t destabilize the entire country, but it can seriously stress the military and the intelligence services, where Pashtuns from the North-West Frontier Province disproportionately serve. No matter what we do, and no matter whether its government now becomes more democratic or more authoritarian, Pakistan is likely to experience increasing violence.

If undertaken at this late date, American strikes inside Pakistan would roil our relations with the Pakistani military and make life more dangerous for Americans living in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Our intelligence cooperation with Islamabad would probably suffer severely. Even secular Pakistanis might rise in indignation. On the other hand, what we have now is definitely not working. We will surely rue the day the United States allowed al Qaeda and its sympathizers a place to grow unmolested.

As Britain’s internal-security service, MI5, is well aware, the Pakistani connection is now the most worrisome nexus for al Qaeda to exploit, what with the enormous number of Pakistanis traveling between the two countries. According to British internal-security officials, every year upwards of 80,000 Pakistanis resident in the United Kingdom, many of them British citizens, visit areas of Pakistan that are “rich with jihadists.” Other European countries also have Pakistani communities. The discovery of jihadist cells within them is becoming a regular occurrence.

So far, the Pakistani military has proven itself unwilling or unable to fight it out with Pashtun fundamentalists who live near the Afghan-Pakistani border. With America’s strong encouragement, President Musharraf attempted to extend his writ into the tribal regions. He failed abysmally, watching Pashtun forces in the army and the frontier constabulary grumble and often desert.

Unless we deploy a lot more troops to Afghanistan to implement an “ink-spot” counterinsurgency akin to the one led by General Petraeus in Iraq, it’s doubtful the United States and NATO can reverse the ascendancy of the Taliban among the Pashtuns. Since we don’t want to invade another country, we will give the Pakistani army another chance to destroy al Qaeda and neutralize the Taliban. But if the Pakistanis don’t do what is necessary in the next 12 months, they probably never will. And note: If Washington is reluctant to launch paramilitary strikes into northwestern Pakistan to kill members of al Qaeda and disrupt new terrorist training camps, it definitely isn’t going to launch covert operations to neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the event the Pakistani army becomes too Islamic. The level of intestinal fortitude and the quality of intelligence required for the former is vastly less than would be required for the latter.

Still, there are grounds for expecting that Pakistan will hang together. Its history since 1947 has given the nation an identity that sticks. The lingering legacy of the British–an aversion to extremes–among both the civilian elite and the tightknit officer corps has usually kept Pakistanis from acting like the more brutal elites of the Arab Middle East. As long as the unique ability of the Pakistani army to absorb both secularists and Islamists within its ranks continues–a modus vivendi that has held since at least the 1970s–the country won’t fall apart and its nukes are unlikely either to disappear into the hands of extremists or to get fired. It’s impossible to overstate the extent to which Pakistan’s fundamentalists loathe the polytheist Hindus of India. Yet the Pakistani military, a tough and fraternal organization, has kept the country from indulging its worst instincts and doing anything stupid with its nukes. Even occasional military strikes by American forces against Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds in the remote tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan would not crack this institution or its control of nuclear weapons.

We will see whether the Pakistani army, always the backbone of the country, is sufficiently wise to allow the people’s continuing attachment to messy democratic politics the room to grow. Pakistan’s political salvation is probably a long way off no matter what Washington does, but greater distance between the United States and the Pakistani military would benefit both parties. Although it’s impossible for America’s allies within the military to say so publicly, they would likely be in no worse position if the United States assumed the responsibility for necessary military operations in the tribal regions. Then the Pakistanis could join our enemies in damning us for violating Pakistani sovereignty, while leaving all concerned more secure than if the Pakistani military took on the emboldened Pashtun fundamentalists and lost.

Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria

The Levant has not been kind to the Bush administration. On virtually every issue in this region, the White House has misfired, not fired at all, or been worn out by contradictory aspirations. The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is as it was in 2000: an event controlled by the continuing Islamist evolution of the Palestinian people, who do not in sufficient numbers countenance peace with a Jewish state. The only real question remaining is whether the Fatah dictatorship on the West Bank will evolve quickly or slowly into a spiritual twin of Hamas. Contrary to what has been endlessly suggested by foreign-policy “realists,” democracy did not destroy Fatah or undermine the chances for peace. Fatah destroyed Fatah. Westernized secular autocracies have similarly squandered their legitimacy throughout the Middle East ever since World War II. Elections will inevitably give expression to this failure.

No elected Muslim Arab government is likely to embrace Israel for many years to come. President Bush got the order backwards in his post-Annapolis speeches, suggesting that the Palestinians need to be able to envision a complete state living side by side with Israel so that democracy can triumph. Democracy did triumph among the Palestinians–Hamas won. Arab autocrats sign peace treaties with Israel; Arab democrats won’t. That explains the Israelis’ preference for Muslim dictatorship over Muslim democracy. Believing Muslims first have to figure out how to reconcile parliamentary legislation and t


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