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George W. and the Dominoes

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And so has its democratic variant turned out—so far—to be bogus with respect to Iraq. In fact, what democratization has brought to the Middle East to date has been, most prominently, dangerous instability: the election of thuggish Hamas to control of the Palestinian Parliament; the endowing of murderous Hezbollah with a substantial voice in the Lebanese government; the election of a vengeful Shiite majority in Iraq (where, we learned last week, American generals fear that we are on the edge of civil war). Moreover, as Odom adds, “it is precisely our actions in Iraq that have opened the door for Iran and Syria to support Hezbollah and Hamas actions without much to fear from the U.S.”

“Engagement doesn’t necessarily get you to yes,” says a former Clinton official. “But while you’re trying and talking, there tends to be less shooting and dying.”

So what to do? Get out now, Odom says. “We need to eat some crow,” he told an interviewer. “It will bring the Europeans back and have them cooperate. If we’re lock-armed with the Europeans, that is the greatest chance for success in Iraq.” As for the administration’s argument, put forward by Dick Cheney, among others, that precipitous withdrawal would cause yet another set of dominoes to fall—the governments in Pakistan, Egypt, and ­Saudi Arabia—Odom waxes incredulous.

“The U.S. forces in Iraq opened the country to Al Qaeda cadres, and democratic elections have cleared the way for radical rulers,” he wrote in the Neiman essay. “The longer U.S. forces stay, the more likely it is that their radicalizing impact will reach beyond Iraq to Egypt and Saudi Arabia—and perhaps to Pakistan.” And “the more likely a full-scale war between Israel and its neighbors. It’s American departure from Iraq that could prevent [all this].”

Tony Blair begs to disagree. He finds it inconceivable that much of Western opinion “looks at the bloodshed in Iraq and say[s] that’s a reason for leaving.” For him, the answer is to stay the course in Iraq, but recognize that what is ­needed is a “whole strategy for the Middle East”—not merely, he implies, the Bush administration’s game of dominoes. “If we are faced with an arc of extremism, we need a corresponding arc of moderation and reconciliation”—more focus on hearts and minds, less on bombs and bullets.

Judging by history, the chances that the Bush administration will heed Blair’s advice are close to zero—which means that they’re about ten times higher than the odds that the Bushies will heed Odom’s. But just as Blair is far from alone in calling for the administration to play the honest broker in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, Odom is by no means alone in calling for an exit from Iraq. Last week, after months of anguished dithering, congressional Democrats ­essentially—nay, miraculously—adopted something like a unified stance advocating just that. Without much fanfare, a dozen of the party’s leaders (including Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi) sent a letter to Bush that contained this nugget of long-sought clarity:

“We believe that a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq should begin before the end of 2006. U.S. forces in Iraq should transition to a more limited mission focused on counterterrorism, training and logistical support of Iraqi security forces, and force protection of U.S. personnel.”

That such a stance was finally achieved in the week when the Middle East was veering close to bursting into flames may be nothing more than sheer coincidence. But it strikes me as unlikely. Though many Democrats loudly support Bush’s path on Lebanon, the party cannot help but grasp that Bush’s mismanagement of Iraq is central to the crisis there—whatever one believes about how that crisis should be handled. And, perhaps for the first time with any real lucidity, they see that running against Bush’s foreign policy could be a winner for them in November.

Certainly, the polls suggest as much and even more: that, for the first time in what seems an eon, the traditional Republican advantages on matters of war and peace have been eroded by Bush’s reckless, feckless foreign policy; and that, denied those advantages, and despite the preternatural capacity of the Democrats to blow even the ripest opportunity, the Republicans may be on the way out this year in the House, and perhaps even in the Senate. If that scenario does unfold, we may look back on this past awful month in Israel and Lebanon as a turning point—not a birth pang in the emergence of a new Middle East, but the moment when the Republican dominoes began to fall. 

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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