Visions and Reality

While President George H.W. Bush (the father) was considered a master of the "realpolitik" of international diplomacy, his critics charged that he was short on "the vision thing". His son, President George W. Bush, on the other hand, has visions aplenty, but ignores both reality and diplomacy.

It was because he and his advisors understood political realities that the first President Bush avoided an American invasion and occupation of Baghdad in 1991. Writing in 1998, Bush and his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft observed that "going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations’ mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of the international response to aggression that we hoped to establish…had we gone the invasion route, the Untied States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land". For his part, Scowcroft, more recently added that "a go-it-alone strategy against Iraq would have created…an explosion of outrage against the [U.S.] in the Muslim world." And would have "even swelled the ranks of terrorists". Recognizing these realities, the first Bush Administration limited its engagement to the liberation of Kuwait and then turned their attention to other regional responsibilities.

Coming out of the 1991 Gulf War the first President Bush recognized that for the U.S. to maintain its legitimacy and leadership in the region it had to move dramatically to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Speaking before Congress, in March of 1991, Bush laid out the principles that must underlie a comprehensive peace. A solution to that conflict, he observed, must provide for both Israel’s security and Palestinian rights. "Anything else" he noted "would fail the twin tests of fairness and security".

This concern with regional reality and diplomacy was a characteristic of the first Bush Administration. Not so with the second, which appears to be doggedly driven by ideologically inspired visions that fail to recognize "realities on the ground".

This was strikingly on display last week in two separate press conferences. On Tuesday night, President George W. Bush appeared before the nation’s press to provide a defense for his Iraq war policy. That was followed the next day by a joint press appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Facing growing public concern with growing instability, increased violence and loss of life in Iraq, the President attempted to provide his supporters with a strong defense for his policy. In his opening remarks he first rehashed, albeit in a more nuanced way, the old justifications for the war-from the dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction to allegations of links between Iraq and terrorism. Then he restated his vision of America creating "a free and democratic Iraq" that will serve as a beacon to the rest of the Middle East. Despite continuing violence and a changing political situation on the ground, Bush clung to his artificial June 30 deadline to recognize a still-unformed "sovereign Iraqi government".

The next day, Bush, as widely expected, gave Israeli Prime Minister the go-ahead to pursue his plan for a unilateral solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while stubbornly maintaining that Sharon’s plan in no way undercut the U.S.’s commitment to "a free, independent, sovereign and contiguous Palestinian State".

Now even a casual observer of the Iraqi situation is forced to question whether or not the Bush vision can be real or is an artful fantasy. With little over two months remaining before the June 30th handoff, it’s still unclear who will constitute the "sovereign Iraqi government" that will be recognized as the "representative of the Iraqi people". And it remains questionable whether raising the Iraqi flag and transforming the CPA into a 3,000-person U.S. embassy with 130,000+ U.S. forces remaining in occupation of the country will constitute a change in real terms.

At the same time, reading the Sharon plan for "disengagement" also raises serious questions about the "vision" of a "sovereign and contiguous Palestinian State". In Sharon’s plan, Gaza will be totally isolated and Palestinian control will be established over only small parts of the West Bank. The remaining portions of "Judea and Samaria" (as the areas are referred to in Sharon’s plan) and all of "Greater Jerusalem" will, for all intents and purposes, be annexed by proposed new highways and infrastructure.

In the face of this, to continue to maintain a commitment to a "peace process" or a just "two-state solution" is at best a cruel joke.

But whether cruel jokes or contentless visions, that was what was offered up last week. Calling "occupied Iraq" a "free Iraq defended by American forces" and calling the occupied and dismembered West Bank and Gaza a future "sovereign Palestine" doesn’t pass, what my mother would call, "the smell test". But these are the realities behind the President’s visions. And despite all this, these are the visions that he continues to maintain are the goals of his Administration.