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George W. and the Dominoes

Iraq was supposed to trigger a democratic chain reaction in the Middle East. Instead—see the missiles over Haifa—the tumbling is going backward.

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Illustration by Gary Neill  

In the nearly five years since 9/11 ushered in the war on terror, Tony Blair has been George W. Bush’s indispensable ally—and his chief enabler. Without Blair behind him, Bush would likely have found it impossible to invade Iraq; without Blair, his refusal to call for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon might have been untenable. In Britain, Blair’s slavish fealty to Bush has kneecapped him politically, inciting (in the case of his stance on a cease-fire) unrest in his own Cabinet. And it has made him a figure of mockery, taunted mercilessly in the tabloids as “the president’s poodle.”

So perhaps the speech that Blair delivered last week, as the Middle East teetered on the brink of chaos, to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council—largely ignored by the U.S. press but closely scrutinized in Britain—was merely a predictable attempt at de-poodle-fication, played primarily for the ankle biters awaiting him back in London. But on any number of levels the address was remarkable all the same.

Here you had Blair acknowledging that the West is losing “the battle against this global extremism.” (What he said, to be precise, was, “We can’t say we are winning,” which amounts to the same thing.) Here you had him admitting that “we are far from persuading those we need to persuade” that our values are “evenhanded, fair, and just in [their] application.” Here you had him arguing that we need to “change dramatically the focus of our policy”—urgently calling for a “complete renaissance of our strategy.”

For critics of the Bush-Blair approach to the war on terror, the inevitable riposte to all this will be No shit—what took you so long? But for Bush and his loyalists, the Blair critique (though, being British, and being Blair, he didn’t utter a single harsh word about the president or his policies directly) should serve as a gentle preview of what lies ahead. Although a U.N.-mediated cease-fire in Lebanon may be shortly in the offing, the past month’s conflagration there, together with the continuing and apparently worsening mayhem in Iraq, is likely to bring on a new era of resistance to the Bush Doctrine: one in which the pressure to change course will be fiercer than ever—and will emanate even from those who once offered unqualified, unwavering support.

The most insistent pressure will be on the administration to restart the Israeli-­Palestinian peace process. Indeed, it was on this subject that Blair was (and has always been) most adamant, and where he came closest to poking the Bush team squarely in the eye. “Progress will not happen unless we change radically our degree of focus, effort, and engagement, especially with the Palestinian side,” he said. “In this, the active leadership of the U.S. is essential.” But Blair is far from alone. “It is too much to expect those most directly implicated—Israeli and Palestinian leaders—to lead the way,” wrote Brent Scowcroft, Bush 41’s national-security adviser, recently in the Washington Post. “That responsibility falls to others, principally the United States.”

Bush and his adjutants have, of course, heard these arguments ad nauseam—and ignored them ad infinitum. From the start, his attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian question seemed to be one, at least in his eyes, of constructive disengagement. Perhaps this was (like so many things with Bush) a rejection of his father, who enjoyed nothing more than playing the peacemaker in the Middle East. Or perhaps it was (like so many other things) a rejection of the Clinton model, which entailed untold time and immeasurable energy in the pursuit of a land-for-peace deal that still ended in failure—although, as one former Clinton foreign-policy hand noted to me, “Engagement à la Clinton doesn’t necessarily get you to yes, but while you’re trying and talking, there tends to be less shooting and dying.”

More likely, however, the hands-off attitude of the Bush crowd ­toward Israel and a potential Palestine owes mainly to the administration’s fixation on the war on terror generally and on Iraq in particular. For the neoconservative theoreticians who conceived the war, Iraq was to be the centerpiece of what Condoleezza Rice has lately taken to calling, with bizarre optimism, “a new Middle East”—precisely the role that more-traditional foreign-policy strategists had long hoped that a coexistent Israel and Palestine would play.

Iraq was also meant to have a catalytic effect: Once established as a model (stable, pluralistic, peaceful), it would, by a kind of chain reaction, weaken the Middle East’s dictatorships and theocracies and strengthen moderate, secular regimes throughout the region. NYU professor Noah Feldman has dubbed this policy “democratization by destabilization.” Another name, equally apt, is the “democratic domino theory.”

Employing that latter term is General William Odom, who in the mid-eighties ran the National Security Agency. As Odom points out in a recent essay for Neiman Watchdog, the original domino theory was invented to justify America’s involvement in Vietnam. And, as everyone knows, it turned out to be bogus.


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