Montrose Journal Winter 05
PROSPECTS FOR THE MIDDLE EAST: BUSH THE PIONEER PEACEMAKER? -
JONATHAN FREEDLAND, COLUMNIST, THE GUARDIAN
a left liberal like me, it is not easy to commit heresy. After all, we
are meant to be open-minded free thinkers, unshackled by taboos.
Nevertheless there is one thought so heretical, merely to utter it is
to ensure instant excommunication. I hesitate even to pose it as a
question. But here goes. What if George W Bush was to prove to be one
of the great American presidents?
first blush, it seems a nonsensical proposition. As I write, Bush's
poll ratings have plunged to the Nixonian depths. One of his top
officials, “Scooter” Libby, has been indicted on perjury charges, while
his closest counsel, Karl Rove, remains under investigation. Bush has
botched a Supreme Court nomination. He stands accused of ballooning the
federal deficit. Images of the dead floating in the streets of a
flooded, Katrina-hit New Orleans still linger in the American imagination. And, gravest of all, the death toll of US personnel killed in Iraq is in excess of 2,000. The Bush presidency, even some Republicans predict, will be remembered only as a disaster.
yet history has a funny habit of messing with presidencies. Ronald
Reagan was dismissed as a joke by plenty of Europeans and Brits in the
1980s, yet he is revered in the United States
as one of the great occupants of the highest office: the national
airport bears his name. Even Richard Nixon, for a quarter century a
byword for presidential calamity, has found himself the object of some
benign revisionism in the last few years. This new version holds that
Nixon was strategically sound on the Cold War and surprisingly moderate
at home, and therefore insists that his place in the history books
should no longer be reducible to that single word, Watergate. Could the
historians of the future take a similar, kindly second look at the 43rd president of the United States?
first achievement is straightforwardly political. Any president who
wins re-election deserves to be taken seriously. Bush's feat is all the
more impressive when you consider the circumstances of his arrival in
the White House. In 2000 he lost the popular vote to Al Gore, only
winning the presidency after a bitter dispute and the intervention of
the judiciary. The last president to have such an inauspicious start
was Rutherford B Hayes in 1876 – and he did not so much as seek
re-election. Bush, by contrast, dispelled any doubts over his
legitimacy by winning his own mandate in 2004. En route, he saw his
party gain seats in the House and Senate in the midterm elections of
2002, the first first-term president to pull that trick off since FDR
in 1934. As things stand, Bush has won the triple crown, giving his
party control of the presidency, House and Senate – with domination of
the third branch of government, the judiciary, the attendant reward.
This is a substantial political record by any measure.
it is that last accomplishment for which the conservatives of the
future may thank him. For it will be Bush – not Reagan, nor Nixon – who
will have made real what was a conservative dream for decades: control
of the Supreme Court. Yes, his path to it was bumpy – with the Harriet
Miers nomination an embarrassment – but the appointments of John
Roberts and Samuel Alito seem set to entrench the conservative
ascendancy in the US
for another generation at least. This refashioned bench will make
decisions that will long outlive the actions of politicians and, thanks
to Bush, those decisions will be conservative. The result is that
Bush's legacy to the US may well be nothing less than a recasting of the legal and social mores of the 21st century.
Of course, any claim to greatness will depend on Iraq, a word as sure to be engraved on the heart of Bush as Calais
was on Mary Tudor's. Today's conventional wisdom, taking in every
foreign ministry in the world – including most of the US State
Department – holds that Operation Iraqi Freedom has been a tragedy of
errors. Based on faulty premises, disingenuously sold and incompetently
planned, the mission of 2003 is widely regarded as an abject failure. I
confess that this is my own view. But the
future may not see it that way. The war removed one of the most hated
tyrants of modern times, shifting Saddam Hussein from a palace to a
prison cell. Couple that with the toppling of the Taliban, a regime of
cruelty and brutal philistinism, and Bush's defenders have a powerful
Next, they can point further afield. For didn't the war in Iraq, admittedly prosecuted at a high and bloody price, not set in train a wider series of events? Note Libya's
rapid decision to come clean about, and abandon, its attempt to build
weapons of mass destruction. Iran is a more complex case – rendered
more complicated by the arrival of President Ahmadinejad – but it is
clear that a faction, at least, within Iran's bifurcated government
wishes to follow Libya's lead. The 2003 war established, through shock
and awe, that any effort to go nuclear can bring terrible consequences.
There has been a chain reaction of a different kind, too. Lebanon is the clearest example, with its Cedar Revolution bringing people power to the streets of Beirut – and the ejection of the Syrian occupier. Tentative moves toward electoral democracy have followed in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain. Even Syria seems, grudgingly, to understand that it lives in a changed region and that it too will have to adapt.
of these advances should be exaggerated; they do not on their own
amount to the flowering of “freedom and democracy” imagined so floridly
in Bush's set-piece speeches. Those have set out the belief that US
interests in the Middle East are no longer served by propping up vile
(if US-friendly) tyrants, but are best aided by the spread of
democracy. Yes, there are contradictions and hypocrisies, but that
shift represents a break from at least 60 years of US foreign policy – and in the right direction. If Washington was to honour the ideal articulated by Bush, then the world would be a better place.
Of course, these recent changes in Lebanon
and beyond may come to nothing. But the opposite is at least possible;
the tentative shifts towards an Arab glasnost could deepen and spread.
If the Iraqis do, despite everything, inch towards constitutional
self-rule, the momentum may be hard to stop. People across the Muslim
and Arab world will see that reform and democracy is real – and they
will want some of it for themselves.
These are all big ifs. For every step forward Bush has inspired, there have been awful steps back: Abu Ghraib and Camp X-Ray
have discredited the cause of US-led democracy more than Bush's warm
words have promoted it. But change will eventually come to the Middle East, just as it came, eventually, to Eastern Europe.
And, when it does, it is at least conceivable that the man future
generations will credit as the pioneer will be none other than George W
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian. He is the author of ‘Jacob’s Gift, A Journey into the Heart of Belonging’. www.jonathanfreedland.com