Bush's audacious Mideast bet

By Jim Hoagland Published:

By Jim Hoagland

I have no idea what the result will be, but I am certain that it will lead to a very interesting situation.

-- Arthur Balfour, on issuing the 1917 declaration that promised a national home in Palestine for the Jews.

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has created his own Balfourian times to live in by betting his presidency on the shifting sands of Middle Eastern politics and religion. Irans demagogic president, Iraqs Shiite clerics and the Palestinian radicals of Hamas have in recent days reminded Bush of the audacity of his bet that democracy will transform and stabilize the region.

How much more interesting does it get than Hillary Clinton running to the right of Bush with a call for economic confrontation with Iran, or that centrist support is growing for John McCains view that bombing Iran is now in the cards? Or Kofi Annan joining European foreign ministers in telling Hamas this week to recognize Israel or in effect go hungry?

But these tactical maneuvers of diplomacy, military strikes or political rhetoric seem confusing in the absence of a larger strategy to reconcile democracy as it is understood in the West and Islam as it is practiced in much of the Middle East. Bush should not abandon his push for Middle Eastern democracy because radicals are temporarily drawing advantage from it. But he needs to re-examine where it is taking him.

The president must quickly adjust his policies to make them reflect the changes they are helping to create. This means forging a Western strategy to engage with and support moderate forms of political Islam, rather than assuming that democratic elections and other reforms will automatically separate religion and politics and devalue the former in favor of the latter.

Concern about political Islam is certainly not new. It has grown steadily in the West since the 1979 revolution led by Irans Shiite clerics. But political Islam has largely been treated by American and European policymakers as an extremist phenomenon. That is especially true since al Qaeda fanatics committed the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, in the name of their religion. Under the Bush doctrine, political Islam is to be fought quietly, country by country, through counterterrorism programs, diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions.

But political Islam is today firmly in the mainstream of the region. It finds democracy to be a congenial rather than an antithetical force. Calling for the destruction of Israel, as Hamas and the Iranians do, is a popular program sold to the masses under an Islamic banner.

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was warned by friendly diplomats last September that his hard-line speech to the U.N. General Assembly would cost him in international opinion, he reportedly scoffed: I am getting good news from home about reaction to the speech.

Or take the electoral victory of Hamas over Fatah and the other remnants of the Palestine Liberation Organization last week. It is the final nail in the coffin of pan-Arab nationalism, the force that historically was to power post-colonial revolutions, Gamal Abdel Nassers Arab socialism and the Arab intellectual awakening in the last century.

Illusory force or spent force, pan-Arabism is as much a relic as the PLO itself in this era of globalization. The obsolescence was also underlined by the victory of Shiite religious parties in Iraqs recent parliamentary election.

It is possible to reconcile democracy, Islam, peaceful coexistence with Israel and good governance. Turkey and Morocco are examples of countries making significant progress on these fronts. Iraq has the potential as well to show that Bushs emphasis on promoting democracy rather than authoritarianism is not guaranteed to boomerang on him.

Bushs demand that freedom and democracy become the beacons toward which all nations in the region should advance was neither inherently flawed nor clueless, as critics maintain. The post-colonial Arab political order of militaristic or hereditary authoritarianism was tottering toward collapse in any event. American efforts to help channel the coming upheaval were, and are, appropriate.

A democratic election is an exercise in accountability, says former Secretary of State George Shultz. It is no surprise the electorate threw these rascals out when they got the chance, continued Shultz, who in 1988 approved the first official U.S.-PLO dialogue and held the guerrilla organization to strict account on its promises.

I wouldnt automatically say you wont talk to somebody in this situation, he added. What is important is what you say: Tell them what you stand for and what you hope will happen. But you sure dont have to fund them.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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