Bush: The strategist in the shadows
By Robert A Juhl
Is US President George W Bush a dimwitted bumpkin who allowed a cabal to deceive him into undertaking a foolish war in Iraq? Or is he a competent strategist following a cynical plan that may bring about a settlement in the Middle East? To answer this question, let us begin by looking at fundamentals.
Traditional US strategy in the Middle East
For decades, US geopolitical strategy in the Middle East has relied on Israel being the dominant player. Israel's power to inflict huge losses on its enemies has kept the rest of the Middle East players dependent on outside powers and disunited. This was a strategy that provided stable, cheap oil prices as long as oil supplies were plentiful and consumers had the upper hand.
In recent years, however, this strategy was becoming increasingly counter-productive. One typical assessment is in a Council on Foreign Relations study from 2001 titled Strategic Energy Policies for the 21st Century. "... Recently things have changed. [The United States'] Gulf allies are finding their domestic and foreign-policy interests increasingly at odds with US strategic considerations, especially as Arab-Israeli tensions flare. They have become less inclined to lower oil prices in exchange for security of markets ... A trend toward anti-Americanism could affect regional leaders' ability to cooperate with the United States in the energy area." According to this and other establishment assessments, traditional Israel-centered US strategy faced a bleak outlook.
At the same time, the playing field was changing. The rise of China and other energy consumers started putting pressure on oil supplies, and producer countries began to hold the upper hand. With tight oil supplies in view for the foreseeable future, US support of Israel as the regional super-power had become a net liability rather than a net advantage.
It was time for a fundamental change in strategy toward the Middle East. The question Bush confronted was how to reduce US reliance on Israel in a manner that would allow it to survive and, with skillful diplomacy, prosper.
Basis of a solution
A settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the obvious place to begin. In his first administration, Bush Jr saw three major obstacles to a Middle East settlement. The first was former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The second and third were linked: the presence of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and a strong Iraq hostile to Israel.
Bush's strategy: lay foundations for a settlement. Easier said than done. But one pragmatic place to start was to eliminate Saddam and remove Iraq as a threat to Israel. With Saddam gone, over the near and medium term Iraq would be too preoccupied with internal power questions to pose a threat to anyone. The next question facing Bush was the tactic to get rid of Saddam. After a short detour into Afghanistan, caused by the attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush's focus returned to the Middle East and Iraq. Speaking in early 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, he predicted a "new stage for Middle East peace" once Saddam lost power. He saw the time was ripe to move on Iraq using the neo-conservative gambit.
Who used whom?
"How did the neo-con defense intellectuals ... manage to capture the Bush administration?" asked political analyst Michael Lind. It is a question that has been asked by many observers. The popular perception is that a clever cabal of neo-cons used deceptive tactics to sway a rather dim-witted president into attacking Iraq.
If my analysis is closer to the truth, the situation was just the opposite: Bush saw a group - the neo-cons - who were both arrogant enough and foolish enough to think that their hands could guide US policy from the shadows backstage. To Bush, they were a godsend. He used the neo-cons by letting them think they were steering US policy toward Iraq. Had the plan for Iraq failed, the blame could have been shifted to fall on their heads. If the Iraq venture succeeds, as now appears possible, Bush stands ready to take credit as the provider of democracy to Iraq and a driving force behind a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
To make this point clear, let us assume a scenario in which the United States and Britain had not invaded Iraq but Arafat had died. Can anyone believe that Israel would be releasing Palestinian prisoners and inviting ambassadors from 10 Arab countries to Tel Aviv if Saddam were still in power? It would be unthinkable. The difference now is that Arafat is dead, Saddam is in prison, and Iraq will be politically and militarily marginal for the foreseeable future. These key changes have paved the way for discussions about a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And two of these key changes were the result of actions by Bush. They are actions that, in my opinion, are part of a far-reaching strategic plan.
Not a divorce but a separation
If my reading of Bush's strategy is right, then the coming period of high oil prices and tight supplies will drive the US to put distance between itself and Israel. Does this mean that the US will abandon Israel? Of course not. But if things go well, and mutual hostilities diminish as a settlement takes shape, Israel will no longer need to rely so heavily on US support. So we will probably see Israel scrambling to cement mutually beneficial ties with its Arab neighbors. And the US will increasingly be able to act in accordance with its own interests, without taking Israel's into account as well.
Waning of negative pressures
Other factors favoring a renewed settlement process are emerging. According to polls, a majority of Palestinians, some 52%, oppose violence against Israel, for the first time since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. Palestine Liberation Organization chief Mahmoud Abbas has stated: "I think now that the intifada in its entirety was a mistake and it should not have continued." And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has begun calling Israeli leader Ariel Sharon the region's best chance for peace.
At the same time, there is some evidence that the demographic pressure of the Palestinians is easing. A recent study suggests that the Palestinian birthrate has fallen to approximately the replacement rate. And because of ongoing emigration, the population may actually be declining. These factors too are helping to set the stage for a renewed push for a settlement.
The common goal is to make progress on the "roadmap", an internationally backed peace plan that envisages an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. The roadmap, which was launched in 2002 by a quartet consisting of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, envisages an independent Palestinian state existing side by side in peace with the Israeli state. Moreover, this year, 2005, is the target year for establishment of the Palestinian state.
Fortunately, this time Bush comes to the Middle East negotiating table encumbered by fewer constraints. As this is his final term as president, he no longer needs to cater to powerful lobbies. And by an amazing coincidence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently investigating the most powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Although this investigation will not sideline AIPAC, it will diminish the lobby's hitherto unmatched power to influence important people in Washington.
Meanwhile, Bush approaches the negotiations with considerable optimism. The year 2005 "is very important because it is going to lead to peace. I not only believe that, I also know that it's going to happen," he has stated flatly, continuing: "Sharon has understood that. It is very important that the Palestinians understand as well that peace is not something that is achieved with words, but with action. I have reason to believe that the new Palestinian leadership understands that and is moving in the right direction."
Of course, the end game has not started. In the early 1990s, Bush Sr hinted to the Arabs that the United States would address the Arab-Israeli conflict as soon as Iraq was kicked out of Kuwait. He proved incapable of keeping his implied promise. The determination of Bush Jr and his ability to twist arms at the negotiating table are yet to be tested. If my hypothesis is correct, however, Bush Jr, in keeping with his grand strategy, has made far more thorough preparations paving the way to settlement negotiations than his father.
Will the son actualize his father's promise?
To return to my initial question, is Bush a bumpkin or a strategist? I think the evidence is clear: he is a competent strategist who is following a plan. His plan is cynical, partially based on invading Iraq under what turned out to be false pretenses. Yet an unprecedented opportunity to stabilize the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to drop into his lap. With good fortune, he may rise to the occasion, to succeed where his father failed.
Robert A Juhl is a translator and writer living in Malaysia.