Bush didn’t start the fire

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

REMEMBER HOW idyllic the Middle East was before that crazy cowboy moved into the White House? Oh for the good ol’ days when Saddam Hussein would invite Kurdish and Shiite leaders to his palace for a lamb roast followed by a nice game of checkers. When the Iranian mullahs would host Fourth of July festivities in Tehran in honor of the Great Angel. And when Hamas and Hezbollah big shots would balance yarmulkes on their turbans and visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to victims of the Holocaust.

Wait. You mean my memory is playing tricks on me? None of that actually happened? Well, then, why on earth are so many pundits blaming President Bush for the current mess in the Middle East? A typical example comes from fellow Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks, who writes: “The Bush administration’s tunnel-vision approach to foreign policy has pushed the U.S. and the world into a devastating tailspin of conflict without end....We promised to make the world safer, but we’ve turned it into a tinderbox.”

We’ve turned the world into a tinderbox? Wasn’t it a tinderbox long before 2001? And why is the United States, much less Bush, responsible for every conflagration?

Iran was developing nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism long before Bush came into office. Critics attack him for not being diplomatic enough with Tehran, but in fact he has been supportive of the efforts of France, Germany and Britain to strike a deal. More recently, his secretary of State has offered to talk to Tehran directly. So keen is the Iranian government for such talks that it hasn’t deigned to reply to the U.S. offer.


Bush hasn’t exactly been a warmonger when it comes to Iran’s ally, Syria, either. Even as Syrian dictator Bashar Assad was turning his country into a staging ground for the Iraqi insurgency, the Bush administration repeatedly sent envoys to Damascus in an attempt to negotiate. Far from being interested in a deal, Assad was only emboldened into thinking that he would suffer no consequences for his hostile acts.

Both Iran and Syria have continued backing Hamas and Hezbollah, but this is hardly a new problem; it dates to the Reagan presidency. Critics suggest that these terrorist groups have gotten more powerful because of Bush’s push for democracy. Hamas, after all, now runs the Palestinian Authority, and Hezbollah is part of a coalition government in Lebanon. But their power doesn’t derive from their political positions; it comes from their militias, which remain outside the democratic process. Hamas was attacking Israel even when it was in opposition. So, for that matter, was the party it replaced -- Yasser Arafat’s Fatah.

ARAFAT, you may recall, launched a terrorist onslaught against Israel in 2000, when President Clinton was still in office. Ariel Sharon, with Bush’s backing, managed to defeat the suicide bombers through a combination of measures defensive (the West Bank barrier) and offensive (targeted killings of terrorist bigwigs). This paved the way for an Israeli pullout from Gaza, exactly what “peace processors” had wanted all along.

This hasn’t exactly won the goodwill of Palestinian militants, but, if you’re a typical liberal critic, you can hardly blame Bush for encouraging Israeli concessions.


But surely, you say, Bush has made things worse in Iraq. Admittedly, the situation there is grim. But is it more grim than when Hussein was invading his neighbors and slaughtering hundreds of thousands of his own people? Or when the U.S. was enforcing sanctions that killed an estimated 60,000 babies a year? Many now claim that Hussein was a bulwark against Iranian adventurism, but Iranian-backed terrorists were at least as active in the 1980s (when they grabbed dozens of Western hostages in Lebanon and blew up the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut) as they are today.

Critics are right that Bush hasn’t transformed the Middle East into a bastion of peace, love and harmony. But he never promised to work miracles; he has consistently spoken of our current struggle as a generational challenge -- the Long War. Sure, he could have done more to help win the war. But there is no reason to think that the critics’ preferred approach -- more diplomatic blather, more international confabs, more concessions to the terror-mongers -- would have produced any better results. In any case, to suggest that his policies are the cause of today’s woes, rather than a reaction to them, reveals a stunning historical amnesia.