George W. and the Dominoes

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.

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. 


George W. and the Dominoes