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Globe Editorial

Bush's Mideast legacy

January 11, 2009
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WARS are usually traceable to a failure of statecraft. In the case of the current Israeli assault on the Hamas regime in Gaza, that failure belongs not only to the leadership of Israel and Hamas, but, most tellingly, to the serial blunders of President Bush.

The humanitarian catastrophe imposed on civilians in Gaza, the Iranian-supplied rockets fired into Israel by Hamas, and the Israeli missiles landing in densely populated neighborhoods of Gaza City are among the consequences of eight years of Bush administration policy in the Middle East. The disasters of war in Gaza come as the culmination to a long skein of bad decisions, and those errors will burden President-elect Barack Obama with a tangle of crises that he will have to begin addressing immediately.

Bush took office in 2001 assuming that whatever the Clinton administration had attempted in the Mideast was wrong and not to be pursued. Since Bill Clinton had invested a great deal of time, energy, and prestige in a failed attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement at Camp David, Bush in his first term took a passive stance toward that central conflict.

His passivity allowed a peacemaking opportunity to fade away unexplored. During a speech at the United Nations in the fall of 2001, Bush did explicitly say he envisioned the creation of a Palestinian state, eventually. But he did nothing to shepherd Israelis and Palestinians into peace talks.

Israel continued to expand settlements and Palestinian armed groups persisted in activities defined by one side as terrorism and by the other as resistance. Bush did not press Israel or the Palestinian Authority to renew negotiations while Yasser Arafat, who had the nationalist credentials to make concessions for peace, was still alive. And after Arafat died, Bush did too little to bolster his moderate successor, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Bush's mishandling of relations with Iran has also had a destructive effect across a large arc that stretches from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Today many in Israel and the Arab states see the last two Mideast wars - the current clash between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and Israel's 2006 war against the Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah - as Iran's conflict with Israel conducted through proxies. But Iran supplied useful intelligence assistance when US forces toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001, and helped the Bush administration establish the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai at the Bonn conference in early 2002. Bush's response was to include Iran in a rhetorical "axis of evil."

After US forces swept Iran's arch enemy Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, Iran offered Bush a grand bargain that would include concessions on its nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah, and security in the Gulf region. Bush disregarded the offer. Israelis, Palestinians, and their neighbors are paying a high price for that mistake.

These were primarily errors of omission. But they would later be compounded by more costly errors of commission. Against the strong objections of both Abbas and Israel, Bush insisted on holding Palestinian elections in January 2006. He did so on the premise that peace could be forged only with a Palestinian partner enjoying unquestioned electoral legitimacy.

When Hamas won a legislative majority with less than 44 percent of the popular vote, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were stunned. Not only had they rejected the pleas of both their Palestinian and Israeli partners; they refused to take into account the frustration of Palestinians with the corruption and incompetence of the secular nationalist Fatah politicians who had come from Tunis in 1995 to rule over Gaza and the West Bank.

Bush's reaction to the Hamas victory made everything worse. He backed an economic blockade of Gaza, discouraging reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and arming and training Fatah security forces to seize power in Gaza. That policy backfired in June 2007, when Hamas conducted its own ruthless coup against Fatah security forces and took complete control over Gaza.

It is instructive that, in the current war situation, Abbas and Egypt's government are blaming Hamas for bringing disaster on Gazans. This reflects an anxiety common to nearly all the Arab regimes: a worry that Bush's fecklessness has allowed Iran, through its arming and funding of Hamas, to supplant the Arab states as prime defender of the Palestinian cause.

Combined with Iran's projection of influence into Iraq and Lebanon, thanks to Bush's many missteps, the current Gaza conflict highlights the degree to which Bush's bungling has empowered adversaries and enfeebled friends.

Obama has an enormous cleanup task ahead of him; he cannot put off for a single day the work of peacemaking and rehabilitation in the Mideast.

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