American Hollywood hero John Wayne once declared, "If everything isn’t black and white, I say, why the hell not?"
Nothing better symbolizes the rejection of the notion of compromise nor accurately captures the spirit that drives President George W. Bush’s foreign policy decisions.
Bush is a modern-day John Wayne. They both wage war against evil "isms." For John Wayne, the Green Beret general, it was "communism" on the big screen. For Bush, the sheltered son of American privilege, it is "terrorism" in a real world.
While comparisons with John Wayne have been used before to describe the aggressive policies of the late President Ronald Reagan, Reagan’s policies sought to either defeat the Communists or force them to change. Under his watch, the communists surrendered, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire crumbled.
Unlike Reagan, Bush has defined his enemy in singular terms that dictate no other resolution except conflict. His rejection of compromise was clearly enunciated to a joint session of the US Congress days after Sept. 11: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."
Incapable of grasping the intricacies of Middle East history, culture and politics, Bush naturally embraces broad-stroke alternatives and jingoistic solutions. When you see the world in stark black and white terms, there is no room for "gray matter", nor can one grasp the intricacies of the Middle East conflict itself.
His evangelical Christian inclination drives his allegiance to Israel and prevents him from becoming something he is not. Bush is inclined to see dark shadows more starkly in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world. Take North Korea, a country that has threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States. Rather than face-off with North Korea, Bush has instead threatened Iran for failing to submit its nuclear program to international sanctions, a demand Bush has not handed down to Israel. Indeed, upon first taking office, Bush turned his back on Middle East peace-making, giving Ariel Sharon a mandate to reverse all the compromises signed during the decade-long Oslo peace process and step up the military occupation of the West Bank.
September 11 not only marks a point in time when President Bush "matured" as an American leader, it also pulled the covers off the Bush deception; his administration openly stated policies they had earlier embraced but not publicized. Don’t expect his vision to change as he enters his second term in office. On the contrary, post-election changes in his administration suggest more difficult days ahead for the Middle East.
The internal battles of the first Bush term have ended and the hawks led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have prevailed. Their most notable victory is the resignation of Secretary of State Colin Powell to be replaced by Condoleezza Rice.
No Cabinet post will have more impact on the Middle East than that of secretary of state. Rice’s appointment forebodes a bleak future for Palestinian-Israeli relations. In any case, it is unlikely Bush will put more effort into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as long as the Iraq war remains volatile and Iran and Syria remain in the "Axis of Evil" column.
Iraq is a troubling challenge for Bush, as the number of American casualties there continues to mount and analogies with Vietnam grow. Either Bush must escalate American involvement to defeat the insurgents, or gracefully walk away under the guise of turning over the future of Iraq to an even less stable new Iraqi government. What he does in Iraq is the most pressing challenge he faces. Clearly, the war there has not reduced international terrorism. Rather it has turned the country into a training ground for terrorists that will only worsen if the United States withdraws prematurely.
Bush is also under increasing pressure to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. Ironically, had Bush captured Bin Laden and been forced to address the nation’s grieving economic slump, he might have lost re-election. Instead, with Bin Laden on the loose and conflict raging around the world, Bush was able to preserve the emotional basis that drove his campaign. While Bin Laden’s videos did little to impact American elections and foreign policy, they keep the threat of international terrorism alive, looming menacingly over America’s emotional horizon.
Bush has also painted himself in a corner with respect to Iran and Syria, both neighbors to Iraq. Unless the leadership and politics of both countries change, Bush faces a certain dilemma. Either he must follow through and attack one or both countries, or admit his broader "war on terrorism" is a failure. Clearly, Bush’s rhetoric and animosity against both countries is so great he might not be able to back down from the public’s expectation that someday soon, American forces will enter both countries.
What concerns me is the idea that Bush is pondering a question many Americans once asked in jest: "What would John Wayne do in a situation like this?"
Reagan recognized the limitations of the John Wayne "strategy" and always left himself an out. Bush’s "us" or "them" philosophy allows no such option.
Palestinians and Israelis have only two choices for their future. Either they take the initiative themselves and find their own way out of their violent quagmire or they start watching John Wayne movies.