Better a lame-duck President George W. Bush in 2008 than the president who confronted us for the previous seven years. After all, now that Bush is taking fewer initiatives and casting a smaller shadow over our conflicts, it is just possible that less damage will occur and that our leaders will feel free to take independent and welcome initiatives.
Take democratization. Bush did enough damage by helping usher Hamas into power in Palestine (along with militant Islamists and pro-Iranian forces in Iraq and Hizballah in Lebanon). And that damage is lasting: it’s hard to conceive of new Palestinian elections without Hamas’ participation. But now that Bush has (quietly, with no soul-searching) backed off from his Middle East democratization campaign we at least don’t have to worry about new initiatives, and can lick our collective wounds while we figure out what to do with the fruits of his earlier efforts.
This brings us to contacts with Hamas. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert feels free to negotiate ceasefire and economic deals as well as a prisoner exchange with the Hamas leadership without risking Bush’s condemnation or veto. Similarly, President Mahmoud Abbas can talk to Hamas and Syria about modes of Fateh-Hamas reconciliation without fear that Bush will cut off aid or even, apparently, that Olmert will cut off peace talks.
It is difficult to say whether the diverse contacts with Hamas will bring any benefit. Moreover, the Quartet conditions regarding genuine diplomatic dialogue (recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of past agreements) that were spearheaded by the United States remain in effect. But greater flexibility in developing such contacts certainly can’t do any harm.
Olmert enjoys that flexibility with regard to Syria, too. A year ago he would not have dared go public with the Israel-Syria proximity talks held in Turkey lest he violate US policy rules. (Nor would he have dared try to convince the Bush administration publicly that its approach toward Syria was wrong; he’s still not trying, but that’s Olmert’s weakness, not Bush’s.) Now, Bush feels obliged to offer faint blessings to the Turkish endeavor. Yet he still won’t commit the US to a constructive facilitator role, thereby preventing really serious Israel-Syria talks.
The same thing could still happen with regard to the contacts with Hamas. The Bush administration could at a critical juncture deny Olmert or Abbas the support they need to follow through on their current contacts with the Islamist movement. In other words, there are benefits to Bush’s lame-duck status, but there are also limits.
This is likely to be the situation for the next seven months at least. Interestingly, both the Obama and the McCain campaigns are talking about investing a major policy-planning and staff-planning effort now, in parallel with their campaigns and with the November-January interregnum, with the objective of "hitting the ground running" at least with regard to the Middle East. If they succeed, this would end the current "between administrations" period sometime in early 2009 rather than in midyear.
A more intelligent and concentrated US approach to the Middle East on the part of the next administration would be welcome–the sooner the better.