Bush: a weak, busted flush

by Stephen Tall on August 25, 2006

Philip Stephens in today’s Financial Times dissects quite how disastrous has been the Bush administration’s neo-con foreign policy in dealing with the dangers posed by a nuclear-equipped Iran.

As he notes, “Iran’s disregard of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) has been well documented by the International Atomic Energy Agency” – but Iran has been tactically adept, both:

1) at building alliances with non-aligned nations by, for example, re-framing the issue as “the sovereign right of all signatories to pursue peaceful nuclear technology”; and

2) exploiting divisions within the international community: “First it was the divisions between the Americans and the Europeans, more recently the gulf between western governments on one side and Russia and China on the other.”

The Middle East is a diplomatic tinder box. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that America has a President who just can’t help playing with matches. Mr Bush’s hawkish policies have bolstered Iran, and emasculated the USA:

Almost everything the Bush administration has done in the greater Middle East, from the axis of evil on, has in one way or another benefited Iran. I remember a conversation with a prominent US neo-conservative on the eve of the Iraq war. The demonstration effect of the removal of Saddam Hussein, he said, along with the establishment of a flourishing democracy in Iraq, would isolate and weaken the Iranian regime.

Well, it did not work out quite like that. The shift in the balance of power in the region is well documented in a report released this week by Chatham House, the London-based international affairs institute. Iran has been the chief beneficiary, it says, of the US war on terror in the Middle East.

Just as US power and prestige has been weakened by the insurgency in Iraq, the overthrow of the Sunni regime in Baghdad eliminated Iran’s most dangerous enemy. Tehran has benefited similarly from the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Its standing has been further enhanced by Israel’s failure to defeat Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. Iran has thus had a measure of success in cultivating relations with its neighbours, even those Arab Sunni states that are not natural allies.

The neo-cons bet the farm on a free, peaceful and democratic Iraq inspiring the whole region to throw off the shackles of tyrannical government (except, perhaps, in Saudi Arabia).

The gamble didn’t pay off, and we now have the worst of all possible worlds: the US and/or her government regarded with varying degrees of suspicion, contempt or hatred around the world – but no longer strong enough, politically (either at home or abroad) or militarily, to be able to act as guarantor in the Middle East for those principles of freedom, peace and democracy.

Mr Bush now can only vacillate. Forced by the realities, the frailties, of the US position – and against his natural instincts – he has adopted a multi-lateralist approach, inviting Iran to talks if it will suspend its uranium enrichment programme, and supporting the UN-backed ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon.

But only half his heart is in it. It is all too obvious Mr Bush would much rather be kickin’ ass.

Such duality is unsustainable, and yet it is probably the only route left open to Mr Bush. He’s a busted flush: too weak to be able to impose ‘Western values’ on the ‘Axis of Evil’ through regime change; and too tainted ever to have any serious leverage within the international community.

However much we might welcome the bankrupting of the Bush presidency, and the implosion of the neo-con agenda, any future foreign policy in which the United States is anything less than 100% committed is a foreign policy doomed to failure. America is too important a player in international relations to be left waiting for her 44th President to take office.

The fear must be that Mr Bush, finding himself backed into a corner, will feel compelled to lash out against Iran. As Mr Stephens gloomily concludes:

Mr Bush may judge he has little to lose in the twilight of his presidency. An uncompromising stance could otherwise emerge as a litmus test of a robust commitment to US national security in the 2008 presidential campaign. Military strikes on Iran could then be, if not the last act of this administration, the first mistake of the next.