No part of the world, not even the United States, has been more deeply affected by George W. Bush’s presidency than the Middle East. From the lofty goals of starting a “democratic revolution,” making a “new Middle East,” and helping the Palestinians to have their own independent state, to the bogus “war on terror,” invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and meddling in Lebanon, Bush’s Middle East policy has been simply one disaster after another.
The reality is that the Middle East is of utmost strategic importance to the U.S. U.S. involvement in that region will not end after Bush leaves office in January 2009. Therefore, as the president’s second term is coming to an end, it is important to consider the results of his Middle East policy, with the hope the next president will learn valuable lessons from Bush’s many blunders and devise a more constructive Middle East policy. So let us consider his legacy.
If there is one minor positive outcome of Bush’s Middle East policy, it has to be the removal of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party from power. But at what price?
- Iraq has effectively been partitioned among the Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Kurds.
- Iraq became a vast training ground for extremists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Kuwait.
- Iraq’s infrastructure has been damaged greatly. It would take decades to put Iraq back to where it was before the war.
- Much of Iraq’s cultural heritage was looted from museums.
- Iraqi prisoners were tortured at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
- Two million Iraqis have left their country. Clearly, they are the highly educated (at least 3,000 of them professors), professionals, and the affluent, and, therefore, their departure is a great brain drain. Proportionally, it would be equivalent to 24 million Americans leaving the U.S.
- Close to 2.5 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq. Proportionally, it would be equivalent to 30 million American refugees within the U.S.
- As many as 1.1 million Iraqis may have been killed. Proportionally, it would as if over 13 million Americans had been killed, a staggering number. Notable among the dead are at least 230 Iraqi professors, with another 60 missing, presumably dead.
- At least 1 million Iraqi children have become orphans.
- Seventy percent of Iraqi children suffer from mental stress disorder.
- Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, the 2001 Nobel laureate in economics, and Linda Bilmes of Harvard University estimated that the eventual cost of the war may reach $2 trillion. If, for a period of 10 years, the funding for cancer research were doubled, every American with diabetes or heart disease were treated, and a global immunization campaign that could save millions of children were carried out, the total cost would be about $600 billion.
As if the price that the Iraqis have paid so far is not enough, the Bush-Cheney administration has demanded the following in secret “negotiations” with Iraq’s government :
- Fifty-eight military bases.
- Control of Iraq’s airspace below 32,000 ft.
- The authority to kill or arrest, without Iraq’s permission, anyone deemed “hostile.”
- The authority to stage a war against terrorists anywhere from Iraq without Iraq’s permission.
- Full immunity from prosecution in Iraq for the U.S. military and civilian contractors.
The last one the U.S. also demanded of Iran in the early 1960s, which sparked the June 5, 1963, uprising in Iran, which eventually led to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. As Ayatollah Khomeini said at that time:
"Capitulation means if we kill the dogs that the Americans bring to Iran, we will be jailed, but if they kill us, our spouse, or our children, or destroy our homes, they will not be even prosecuted in Iran."
Bush’s Iraq legacy? A destroyed country, only nominally unified, and probably a quasi-colony of the U.S. for the foreseeable future.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there was an ocean of good will toward the U.S., and great support for destroying al-Qaeda. What happened?
Afghanistan was attacked, even though the U.S. knew that the al-Qaeda leadership had already escaped to the border region with Pakistan, and Donald Rumsfeld reportedly said that “there aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan.” The Taliban were overthrown. But where is Afghanistan now?
- The Taliban are resurgent. They are gaining ground and the support of the ethnic Pashtuns, and they control most of southern Afghanistan. Recall that they were despised right before the 9/11 attacks.
- At least compared with Iraq, Afghanistan has received a dearth of aid. It is in turmoil, the best evidence of which is the assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai and the recent assault by Taliban forces on a prison in Kandahar that freed at least 400 Taliban fighters. The unemployment rate is at least 60 percent.
- Karzai is viewed by many Afghans as the puppet of the U.S., and this in a nation that has historically had little tolerance for foreigners and their agents.
- Opium production, which was banned under Taliban, is thriving. It supplies 93 percent of the world’s heroin and 53 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP.
- The government hardly controls anything beyond the capital, Kabul. The country has been effectively partitioned among warlords.
- The number of NATO troops has increased from 20,000 in 2003 to more than 64,000, including 3,200 new U.S. Marines. Practically every day innocent civilians are killed by NATO bombing, causing a strong backlash against NATO.
Bush’s Afghanistan legacy? An economic basket case that needs vast amounts of international aid to barely survive and will not be a viable state for decades, if ever.
Since 9/11, the U.S. has given Pakistan $11 billion in aid, in addition to forgiving its previous debts. Eighty percent of this aid has gone to the military to supposedly fight al-Qaeda. What has happened?
- Ninety percent of the military aid has been used by Gen. Pervez Musharraf to buy advanced weapons and put them on the Pakistan-India border, one of the most unstable areas in the world, where two nuclear nations are lined up against each other.
- Musharraf has, in fact, signed peace agreements with the Taliban’s sympathizers in the western and northern Pakistan provinces, which means that both the Taliban and al-Qaeda have secure places to train terrorists.
- With U.S. consent or at least silence, Musharraf has violated Pakistan’s constitution repeatedly. For example, last year he sacked and jailed Pakistan’s Supreme Court judges who opposed him. He then appointed new judges who had to swear to loyalty to him rather than Pakistan’s constitution. The jailed judges have yet to be released.
- The U.S. arranged for Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan to give a civilian face to the military dictatorship, without even making sure that she was secure. She was assassinated.
Bush’s Pakistan legacy? An unstable nuclear nation with a large number of radicals in its military intelligence (the ISI) who support the Taliban.
After the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, and the subsequent Cedar Revolution, Bush pushed for democratic elections in Lebanon. These were held in spring 2005, but the results were not to Bush’s liking.
Not only did Hezbollah receive a significant fraction of the votes and send 14 representative to the parliament, but its partners in the March 8 coalition also received significant votes, and Hezbollah joined the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in July 2005. Condoleezza Rice’s “directed democracy” project was a failure.
But Bush did not stop meddling in Lebanon’s affairs. He constantly provoked Siniora against Hezbollah and its allies, notably Michel Aoun, the Maronite ex-general. The result: Complete paralysis of the government.
Then came the summer 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. Hezbollah began the war, and was rightfully condemned by the world. But Hezbollah had carried out several such small operations in the past, and each time there was a quick cease-fire.
Not this time. With strong support by Bush and Cheney, Israel started a full scale war. Meanwhile, the U.S. prevented the United Nations Security Council from reaching any consensus regarding a cease-fire, buying time for Israel to supposedly crush Hezbollah. Condi Rice promised a “new Middle East,” one in which Hezbollah would be defeated and Iran would be attacked. Twelve hundred Lebanese (1,000 of them civilians) and over 150 Israelis (40 of them civilians) were killed, and the infrastructure of Lebanon was greatly damaged by Israel’s bombing.
Hezbollah, however, won the war. Although a U.S. official told Seymour Hersh that the Israelis viewed Lebanon as "a demo for Iran,” the Pentagon had to revise its plans for attacking Iran. After seeing the types of weapons used by Hezbollah, Gen. John Abizaid, then the Centcom commander, said the Iranians “have given us a hint about things to come.”
Hezbollah remained intact, its popularity in the Arab world greater than ever before. This was the second time it had won a war with Israel. The first time was in 2000 when, after fighting with Israel for 15 years, Hezbollah forced Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon, which it had occupied since 1982.
Bush, however, continued his meddling. He provoked Siniora to sack the security chief of Beirut’s airport, allegedly a Hezbollah member, and shut down Hezbollah’s optical communication network, which had played a crucial role in its victory over Israel.
The result: Hezbollah swiftly took over West Beirut and routed forces loyal to Siniora. It demanded restoration of its communication network, giving the security chief his job back and veto power over all the government’s decisions. Siniora had taken action against Hezbollah, counting on U. S. aid. The aid never came. Bush blinked. Siniora blinked.
The result: Hezbollah got all of its demands and more. Michel Suleiman, a general with whom Hezbollah has good relations, is now the president. Hezbollah is more powerful than ever.
Bush’s Lebanon legacy? An organization that the U.S. has labeled as terrorist has won impressive strategic victories over both the U.S. and Israel and is in the driving seat.
Iran provided significant help to U.S. forces when it attacked Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. It opened its airspace to U.S. aircraft and provided intelligence on the Taliban forces. The opposition forces that it had been supporting for years, the Northern Alliance, were the first to reach Kabul and overthrow the Taliban government.
Then, during the UN talks on the future of Afghanistan, after the Taliban’s ouster, in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, Iranian representative Mohammad Javad Zarif met daily with U.S. envoy James Dobbins, who praised Zarif for preventing the conference from collapsing because of last-minute demands by the Northern Alliance [.pdf]. Thus, the National Unity government led by Karzai could not have come to power without Iran’s help.
How was Iran rewarded? Two months later, President Bush made Iran a charter member of his imaginary “axis of evil.” Then, in early May 2003 Iran made a comprehensive proposal to the U.S., offering to negotiate on all important issues, recognizing Israel within its pre-1967 war borders, and cutting off material support to Hamas and Hezbollah. The proposal was never taken seriously.
What have been the results of Bush’s belligerence toward Iran and his constant demonizing of that nation?
- Iranians saw the double standards when the U.S offered security guarantees and aid to North Korea and advanced nuclear technology to India, but only sanctions and threats to Iran. Thus, in 2005 they elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had run on a platform partly based on standing up to the U.S.
- Despite all the declarations that Bush has made against Iran’s nuclear program, the fact remains that Iran has made far more progress in its nuclear program during his presidency than in the previous 30 years combined. This has come about only because Bush has refused to negotiate with Iran without any preconditions.
- Because of events in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon, Iran’s radicals are actually in the driving seat, and their popularity in the Islamic world is higher than ever.
- The hardliners have used Bush’s idiotic proclamations of support for the reformists to label them as U.S. agents, and they have taken advantage of his threats against Iran to try to suppress the democratic movement.
Bush’s Iran legacy? A nation on the verge of achieving uranium enrichment and becoming a regional power.
When Bill Clinton left the White House in 2001, the Israelis and the Palestinians were tantalizingly close to a peace agreement. Today, the probability of peace is practically nil. No other U.S. president has supported Israel as blindly and one-sidedly. He is also the first U.S. president who actually recognized Israel’s policy of building and annexing settlements in the West Bank, giving Israel a secret letter committing the U.S. to such a policy.
With Bush’s support, Israel “evacuated” Gaza but created the largest jail on Earth: Gaza’s land, sea, and air borders are all controlled by Israel. It attacks Gaza at will, and when it kills innocent women, children, and old men, what does Bush say? “Israel must defend itself.”
Bush and Rice pushed for democratic elections among Palestinians. The radicals actually wanted such elections too! What happened? The elections were held and certified as democratic by Jimmy Carter, but Hamas won. It received more votes than any other group, including Fatah, and took control of the Palestinian parliament.
As usual, Rice was shocked. “Nobody saw it coming,” she declared. (No secretary of state has made more trips to Israel and Palestine than Rice without having anything to show for it.) So what happened? Instead of trying to work with Hamas, which has never been a threat to the U.S., Bush began punishing the Palestinians by cutting off all aid and pressuring others to follow the U.S. lead. Hamas responded to this by routing the Fatah forces in Gaza, taking full control there.
Bush has paid lip service to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. In his recent speech before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Bush promised the Palestinians that they would have a state of their own “over the next 60 years.” Some promise.
Bush’s Israel/Palestine legacy? Peace between Israel and the Palestinians is more farfetched than ever.
The Middle East
In addition to all the above, here is the rest of Bush’s legacy in the Middle East:
- When Bush was elected, the price of oil was about $35/barrel. Today it is close to $140. Roughly half of the oil price is due to political reasons, the most important of which is the instability in the Middle East, caused by Bush’s wars and threats of war.
- When the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, there was much sympathy for the U.S. in the Islamic world. Today, the U.S. is despised in much of the Islamic world.
- When Bush was elected, the U.S. and Iran had a chance for reconciliation, after Madeleine Albright’s speech of April 2000, which expressed regrets for the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup in Iran. Today, there is no such chance for reconciliation until at least after Bush leaves office.
- Bush was elected only eight months after the Iranian reformists had taken control of Iran’s parliament in the March 2000 elections, and only seven months after then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had talked about "strong winds of change" in Iran. The reformists’ victory, together with the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, had generated considerable discussions and soul-searching among the Arab nations of the Middle East about the need for reforms in their countries. In fact, some of them, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan, had begun moving cautiously toward reforms. But after 9/11 and Bush’s "war on terror," all the cautious moves toward reform were halted. The regimes of these nations chose instead to hide behind the "war on terror" and justify the repression of their citizens.
Bush still refuses to face the realities of the mess that he has created in the Middle East. His overall Middle East legacy is EFP, explosively false propaganda, through which he still tries to sell his fantasies to the public.
Yes, Mr. President, contrary to what you said recently, there is such a thing as “objective short-term history,” and you have failed its test miserably.
Read more by Muhammad Sahimi
- Trump and the Nuclear Agreement With Iran – December 5th, 2016
- Deconstructing Senator Chuck Schumer’s Pro-War Statement About the Iran Nuclear Deal – August 11th, 2015
- Those Who Want War With Iran Should Explicitly Declare It – July 28th, 2015
- Demonizing Iran To Prevent the Nuclear Agreement – July 3rd, 2015
- As a Muslim and Iranian-American I Am Delighted Netanyahu Will Speak to Congress – March 1st, 2015