Winter 2005

Prospects for the Middle East: Bush the Pioneer Peacemaker?

Jonathan Freedland

For 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?

At 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.

And 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?

Bush’s 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.

But 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 régime of cruelty and brutal philistinism, and Bush’s defenders have a powerful opening argument.

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.

None 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 Bush.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian. He is the author of Jacob’s Gift, A Journey into the Heart of Belonging.