The Five Fatal Mistakes of Bush's Mideast Policy

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U.S. President George W. Bush meets Jordan's King Abdullah II at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan.

President Bush travels to Jordan this week amid a consensus among U.S. allies in the Middle East that the region is monumentally worse off now than it was when he took office six years ago. In Iraq, there seems little prospect of achieving anything that could be construed as a U.S. victory — and as a result, it is unlikely to send the promised tidal wave of freedom crashing across the Arab world. Instead, Iraq has effectively disintegrated into a Sunni-Shi'ite civil war that threatens to spread instability throughout the region.

Elsewhere, Israelis and Palestinians have descended into one of the most intractable cycles of conflict in their long struggle. In Lebanon, the national unity agreement that ended almost two decades of civil war in 1990 appears to be unraveling, as sectarian factions are again edging toward another bloodbath. Meanwhile, Arab autocrats remain entrenched, Arab democrats are feeling abandoned, and Iran's Islamic revolution is enjoying a second wind. For all the grand ambition of President Bush's interventions in the Middle East, a veteran Western diplomat recently offered TIME the following glum assessment: "The region is in as serious a mess as I have ever seen it. There is an unprecedented number of interconnected conflicts and threats."

The fact that Bush is holding talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki not in Baghdad, but in the comparatively tranquil Jordanian capital of Amman, has not gone unnoticed."One hundred and fifty thousand U.S. soldiers cannot secure protection for their president," mocked a Jordanian columnist, who called the choice of venue "an open admission of gross failure for Washington and its allies' project in Iraq."

So, how did things go wrong? The Bush Administration is not entirely to blame. The Middle East is a tough neighborhood, and many of its various ills — repression, extremism and conflict — have been around for decades. Bush deserves credit, in fact, for reversing — on paper if not in practice — years of American policy by promoting democracy in the Arab world and calling for an independent Palestinian state. But the Bush Administration made five fatal mistakes that contributed to the crisis in which it now finds itself.

1. Bush ignored the Palestinians.

Up until the week that Bill Clinton left office in January 2001, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were still trying to work out an ambitious end-of-conflict agreement. True, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had unleashed an intifadeh, and the Israelis were on the verge of electing Ariel Sharon — an avowed enemy of the Oslo peace process — as prime minister, but the two sides were still talking. When Bush became president, he ended crucial American mediation, repudiated Arafat and backed Sharon, who proceeded to expand Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. With the conflict becoming bloodier than ever, Arafat died, and Hamas, the fundamentalist party that adamantly refuses to even recognize Israel, much less negotiate with it, ousted the late Palestinian leader's party from power. Besides angering Arab opinion, the lack of an Arab-Israeli peace process that would also address Israel's occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights has encouraged mischief-making by Damascus, which is suspected of aiding anti-U.S. insurgents in Iraq and committing political assassinations in Lebanon.

2. Bush invaded Iraq.

After 9/11, Bush became convinced that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons and represented a mortal threat to the West. He also came to believe that ousting Saddam would turn Iraq into a democracy that would become the model for the rest of the Arab world. Saddam turned out not to have nuclear weapons, and Iraq turned out to be more prone to civil war than democracy. It runs the risk of becoming a failed state from which terrorists run global operations, and/or breaking into ethnic mini-states that inspire secessionist trouble throughout the region.

3. Bush misjudged Iran.

Just after Bush became president, Iranians reelected moderate President Mohammed Khatami, who had reached out to the U.S. and called for a "dialogue of civilizations." Bush not only refused to extend the olive branch cautiously offered by the Clinton Administration, he declared Iran part of an "axis of evil." Khatami left office under fire for the failure of his conciliatory approach, to be replaced by hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who proceeded to promote Iran's nuclear ambitions and call for Israel to be wiped off the map. Despite Bush's tough talk against Iran, the Iraq war has dramatically expanded Iran's influence in the country. To make matters worse, Iran's Lebanese ally, Hizballah, withstood Israel's month-long onslaught last summer and is poised to topple the U.S.-backed Lebanese government.

4. Bush hurt Israel.

If protecting Israel had been a key goal of the Administration's policies, it is hard to see how they have helped make the Jewish State better off today. Having gotten rid of Arafat, they have instead to face Hamas. And continuous rocket attacks from Gaza have highlighted the limits of what Israel can achieve through its plans to unilaterally redraw its borders. The confrontation in Lebanon over the summer and the messy engagement in Gaza also highlight the limits on the deterrent capacity of Israel's military advantages. Spreading instability in the region is not in Israel's long-term interests; nor is a nuclear Iran.

5. Bush alienated Muslims.

It was an honest misstep, but the problem began when Bush promised to wage a "crusade" against al-Qaeda after September 11, effectively equating his war on terrorism with an earlier Christian invasion of the Middle East that remains etched in the collective memory of Muslims. Since then, the Bush Administration's involvement in or perceived support of military campaigns against Iraqis, Palestinians and Lebanese heightened Muslim anger at the U.S. and undermined the political position of moderate, pro-American Arabs, including old U.S. allies like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — and, of course, King Abdullah II of Jordan, the host of Bush's Middle East visit this week.