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Jewish World Review Jan. 7, 2002 / 4 Shevat, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Figuring Out Bush

Does he mean what he says about democracy in the Middle East? | According to the White House's political director, Ken Mehlman, those wishing to understand the political motives behind the strategies pursued by his boss should just remember that "good policy is good politics."

Such platitudes make for boring interviews and give little insight into either the workings of the White House or the man who stands at the head of our nation. But the greater the puzzlement over what exactly George W. Bush intends to do, the better the political gurus who work for him like it.

Just short of two years into his presidency, Bush is still reaping the advantages of being underestimated by both friends and foes. For many Democrats and Liberals, Bush is still the accidental president who should never have been elected and whose intellect is not equal to the task of running the country. For them, anything he does is, by definition, illegitimate.

We will never know just how the Bush presidency would have played out without being defined by the challenge of international terrorism. And that is why many Bush critics feel the Sept. 11 attacks gave the president an unfair advantage. Slow to realize just how much the war on terror had changed everything, the midterm elections illustrated that as they will continue to lose ground until they own up to Bush's formidable position.

This is a president whose stature, policy skills and political acumen seem to grow with every challenge. That's why it appears as if it will get a lot worse for Bush-haters before it gets better. Politically motivated doomsayers notwithstanding, Bush will probably soon add a success in Iraq to the victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan.


But the question remains, what will Bush do once the guns go silent and the task of reconfiguring a new post-Saddam Middle East is upon us? On that score, Bush's supporters and his critics are equally up in the air.

The administration is still asking us to trust that regime change in Baghdad will mean more than a new set of dictators running Iraq, albeit ones that are amenable to American strategic interests. The Bush White House and the Pentagon have been selling a revolutionary vision of postwar Iraq. They intend to use the overturning of the apple cart in Iraq as an excuse to introduce something really different into the Middle East: democracy.

The idea here is that American military victory is the lever by which we can force at least a portion of the heretofore solidly authoritarian Arab/Islamic world to accept democracy.

Skeptics and Bush-bashers have consistently guffawed at the possibility of Iraq being turned overnight from one of the most repressive and bloody-minded dictatorships in the world into a free country under the rule of law. Maybe they are right to be skeptical, but the idealism and the simple logic of the Bush thesis are powerful. And what alternative do the critics have to offer in its place? Allowing the maniacal Saddam to continue in power? Surely the time is long past for getting rid of that kind of cynicism.

But while Washington is dreaming of democracy spreading over the Islamic world, our friends in Europe have other ideas. They are still obsessed with appeasing the Arab ambition to cut the one democracy in the region - the State of Israel - down to size and to create a Palestinian state for Yasser Arafat, whether or not he agrees to stop his terror war against Israel. The current centerpiece of this effort is the so-called "road map" to peace promoted by the diplomatic "Quartet" of the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States.

In order to maintain their participation in his war coalition, Bush has had to go along with this European mania and has even made the creation of a Palestinian state part of his postwar vision. The difference is, as laid out in his June 24 Middle East policy speech, Bush insists such a state must not only renounce terror but be democratic as well.

Bush has rightly insisted on holding off a public announcement of the terms of the road map until after Israel's Jan. 28 elections. But whenever these terms are published, they spell disaster for Israel. The document, which is nonetheless being openly circulated, calls for Israel to make drastic concessions to the Palestinians that will lead to a sovereign Palestinian state, whether or not the Palestinians do anything about terror.

While the very idea of a Palestinian state was once enough to bring Israel's American friends to the barricades and create enormous pressure on Washington, that is no longer the case.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will do everything possible not to say 'no' to Bush on the eve of war with Iraq. Even most of the nationalist camp in Israel has finally acknowledged that the terrorist entity created by the Oslo process is already a state in everything but name. Sharon has made it clear that Israel's goal in future negotiations is to ensure that the Palestinian state that is fated to eventually emerge pose a minimal threat to Israel's security even if Bush's provisions are met. That is a reasonable position that only the hardest of hard-liners publicly oppose here or in Israel.

But the question isn't what Sharon will do. Rather, it is whether after Jan. 28 Bush will continue to insist on his vision of a democratic and peaceful Palestine or, instead, go along with the Europeans. At that point, we are going to find out if Bush means what he says about democracy and no terror being not an option for the Palestinians but a prerequisite for statehood.


Many on the left see Bush's democracy talk as simply a formula for avoiding pressure on Israel. Some on the right are so scared by talk of a Palestinian state that they fear Bush will betray Israel.

I think they are both wrong.

After two years in power, I think it is abundantly clear that when the president articulates a principle he seems to mean what he says. No matter what the road map says, that means the "Quartet" is bound to be disappointed by a Bush insistence on Arafat's ouster, an end to terror and the institution of genuine democracy before there is a Palestinian state. And if a failure to achieve those goals means that a Palestinian state is not in the offing, then the Europeans and the U.N. will have to like it or lump it.

The same is true of Iraq. I believe the president isn't kidding about not letting a post-Saddam Iraq become just another Arab authoritarian regime. And if he achieves that goal, then all Arab tyrannies - including those that currently pretend to be American allies - are bound to change as well. This is heady stuff, and perhaps I'm just dreaming along with the White House and the Pentagon about its feasibility. But it is only out of such dreams that positive change is possible.

After watching him in action for two years, I'm starting to believe that his spinmasters are right. Bush really does think good policy is good politics. If so, then his critics should be prepared for more unpleasant surprises.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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