Bush's new Middle East hasn't worked out
Updated Dec. 7, 2006
The nine wise men — and the one wise woman — hired by Congress to sort out the ugly, tangled mess in Iraq had a self-evident declaration for President George W. Bush: His war is an incipient catastrophe.
The wise men and woman made 79 recommendations, a few of which seem pretty self-evident, too. Insist that the Iraqis take control of their own affairs as soon as possible. Don't keep troops there forever. Try to bring some common sense to the flailing, and colossally expensive, reconstruction efforts in Iraq. The essence of wisdom is often a clear-eyed statement of the obvious.
But other recommendations went further.
Here's one: The United States should make a serious effort to achieve peace between the Israelis and the Arabs. A "comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and … Israel and Palestine."
That's an idea that's been tried before, to say the least, and with the exception of the lucky few who walked away with Nobel Peace Prizes, it's been a corrosive, frustrating, politically unprofitable experience, which is perhaps why Bush has tended to avoid the issue, leaving it to the Israelis to manage.
But the Israeli-Arab conflict remains the Middle East's defining pathology, so supremely important that the Iraq Study Group saw fit to emphasize it in their summary.
"The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability," said the statement, endorsed by the likes of Republican statesman James Baker and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Put another way: The road to Jerusalem does not run through Baghdad, as neo-conservative hawks are fond of saying. The road to Jerusalem runs through Jerusalem.
No new solutions
The wise men and woman of the study group, though, did not offer any specific new solutions for that conflict, possibly because there are none. Ehud Barak, another wise fellow whose political career in Israel was destroyed by his efforts to reach a deal, understood that. And the people with whom he was negotiating, pre-George Bush, were pikers compared to some of the men who have come into power on the watch of this president.
The study group delicately advises engaging "Palestinians … who accept Israel's right to exist," meaning not the ascetic extremists of Hamas, who were freely elected to govern the Palestinian Authority while the Americans were busy in Iraq.
It also suggests asking for Syria's help, not just in achieving peace with Israel, but in leashing the Sunni insurgents of Iraq, who, without question, rely on help from Damascus.
Again, no concrete suggestions on how to co-opt a nation labelled terrorist by the White House, other than a reflection that America has "incentives and disincentives" at its disposal.
Among the incentives that undoubtedly interest Syria: A return of the Golan Heights, lost to Israel in 1973, right down to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, an end to troublesome investigations of political murders in Lebanon, and a return of its old influence in that pitiable country, which hardline Syrians consider a province.
Syrian officials have complained they got nothing for their participation in the first American-led Gulf war; they aren't about to walk away empty-handed this time.
There stands Lebanon's Nasrallah
The group also suggests engaging Lebanon, the closest thing to a democracy in the Arab world. That would involve engaging Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of America and Israel, who emerged from last summer's war with Israel as arguably the most powerful politician in the country.
He is now busy helping train the Mahdi Army, the ferociously anti-American Shia militia in Iraq. What incentives he would demand, or what disincentives might bend him to American purpose, are left unsaid in the report.
But the study group goes on. Bush, it says, must swallow an even bigger, and even more bitter pill: Iran.
What the group is saying is that the Bush administration must forget talking about regime change in Tehran, and respectfully ask the mullahs to help out in Iraq, where they without question exercise great influence over the Shia.
The Iranians would regard that as a most welcome development; formal recognition as the pre-eminent regional power is something they greatly desire. It's a safe bet they want a freer hand to pursue their nuclear ambitions, too.
Bush, of course, is not bound by the recommendations of the wise men. They merely provide him with political cover in case he concludes their recommendations, however distasteful he may find them, are self-evident.
To put it mildly, the new Middle East envisioned by the president hasn't worked out. It is essentially the old Middle East, only worse.
And now the wise men and the wise woman have said so.