Many downplay the significance of the US Congressional elections. It is the six-year slump, they say. But the truth is nonetheless glaring. By all accounts, Tuesday the George W. Bush era came to a close.
The consequences of this turn of events on Israel will be dramatic. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that anyone has explained them to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ahead of his scheduled visit to the White House next week.
Across the political spectrum in Washington today there is a sense that after years of wavering, in the wake of the Democratic victory in Tuesday's Congressional elections, President Bush transferred control over American foreign policy to his father's anti-war advisors.
The President's announcement of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's "resignation" Wednesday signaled the transfer of control over the war against radical Islam from Bush's team to Bush pere's team. Robert Gates, Bush's nominee to replace Rumsfeld, served as his father's deputy national security adviser and CIA director. Gates, who will arrive at the Pentagon from his present position as President of Texas A&M University where Bush I's presidential library is located, is closely associated with former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft and former secretary of state James Baker. He is a member in good standing of the Arabist wing of the Republican Party which dominated the President's father's administration.
In recent years, Gates made one notable foray into the world of international affairs. In 2004 he collaborated with Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor in the Carter administration. Like former president Jimmy Carter, Brzezinski is one of Israel's greatest adversaries in US policymaking circles. It is hard to recall a problem, conflict, crisis or war in the Middle East over the past thirty years that Brzezinski has not managed to blame on Israel.
Gates and Brzezinski co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored Task Force charged with recommending a US policy for dealing with Iran. In July 2004 they published their recommendations. The Task Force called for the Bush administration to directly engage the mullahs and to use "fewer sticks and more carrots" to convince the regime in Teheran to stop enriching uranium, and to stop supporting al Qaida and the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an effort to convince the Iranians to cooperate, the two recommended that the US discard regime overthrow as a policy option and move more forcefully to establish a Palestinian state as quickly as possible. They also recommended that the US pressure Israel not to take any military action against the Iranian nuclear facilities arguing that such Israeli actions would undermine US national interests.
In recent months, Gates has been serving as a member of the Iraq Study Group chaired by Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. The Congressionally mandated committee is scheduled to recommend new strategies for managing the war in Iraq to Bush later in the month.
Since it is Iranian and Syrian sponsorship of the insurgency that is causing the war to continue, it is fairly clear that Baker is egging for a temporary ceasefire that will last long enough to enable a pullout of US forces. The fact that the price of the temporary ceasefire will be a US defeat in Iraq and the surrender of Iraq to the tender mercies of Iran and Syria is apparently okay by Baker.
SOME OF Bush's critics on the Right claim that Bush's nomination of Gates to replace Rumsfeld won't change anything. Since in point of fact Bush has been conducting talks in various venues with Teheran for the past five years, and given that since 2002 the establishment of a Palestinian state has been a central plank of US Middle East policy, these conservative critics argue that the Gates-Brzezinski recommendations are already official policy.
Moreover, many claim that when Bush made the decision in April 2003 not to widen the campaign in Iraq to the sources of the then-nascent insurgency in Syria and Iran, the President effectively decided not to win the war in Iraq. This is the case because Iraq is merely one front in a regional war. As Michael Ledeen from the American Enterprise Institute, who served with Gates in the Reagan administration argues, the US cannot win the regional war while limiting its operations to playing defense on one front.
When seen from this perspective, far from signaling a strategic shift in US policy, Gates' nomination merely serves to restate an existing policy.
Yet Bush's policies to date have been far from consistent. Indeed, for the past several years Bush has been simultaneously advancing two contradictory policies. On the one hand, as his critics on the Right have repeatedly stated, through his engagement of Teheran and support for Palestinian statehood, he has been carrying out a policy of appeasement towards the Iranians and the Arabs. At the same time however, Bush supported Israel in the war this summer. He isolated the Palestinian Authority after Hamas took power, and throughout his first term in office, he refused to meet with Yassir Arafat in spite of the significant domestic and international pressure exerted on him to do so.
Practically speaking, Bush supported Israel's right to take action to defend itself. (What Israel did with his support is a completely separate issue.) As to Iran, Bush distinguished himself from his predecessors by announcing his support for the overthrow of the regime in Teheran. In recent months, Bush and at least some of the members of his administration pointed fingers at Damascus and Teheran for their sponsorship of the insurgents in Iraq, for Hizbullah in Lebanon and for Palestinian terror groups in Gaza, Judea and Samaria.
So when the full breadth of Bush's policies is taken into consideration, his decision to appoint Gates does signal a strategic shift in direction. Rumsfeld was completely identified with Bush's pro-Israel policies and with his hawkish stances towards Islamic radicalism. Rumsfeld's ouster and replacement by a follower of Baker, Bush pere and Scowcroft signals a clean break with the policies Rumsfeld embodied. Furthermore, by sacking Rumsfeld the day after the elections, Bush sent a signal to the Democrats that he is willing to forego victory in exchange for political breathing space.
Did Bush have to respond to the elections by abandoning his strategic goals in the war? Some claim that pro-war Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman's reelection is a sign that support for the war is not a recipe for political defeat. Lieberman, it should be recalled, was defeated this summer in the Democratic primaries for his Senate seat by anti-war businessman Ned Lamont. That defeat, in a race riddled with anti-Semitic attacks, forced Lieberman to run as an Independent in the general elections. His victory this week is pointed to as proof that supporting the war is not political suicide.
There are two main problems with this view. First, Lieberman's race was unique. As a three-term, successful Democratic senator, Lieberman's defeat in the primary did not end his support among a significant group of Democrats. At the same time, his support for the war won him the Republican vote. Republican senators like Rick Santorum from Pennsylvania were defeated with similar positions on the war because they were unable to garner any significant support among Democrats and only a handful of other Democrats ran as avowedly pro-war candidates.
Secondly, while Lieberman won his reelection victory, he and fellow war supporters lost the war for the soul of the Democratic Party. A lifelong Democrat, Lieberman had to leave the party to win reelection. And he will not share the fruits of the Democratic victory in the Senate in his new status as an Independent. He will enjoy no benefits of seniority. He will not receive a committee chairmanship. While some claim that as an Independent in a closely divided Senate he will have the power to tip the scales in favor of either party, the fact is that neither party is strong enough to make proper use of his vote. So he lacks real political power.
More than anything, the partyless Lieberman will serve as a constant reminder of the power of the radical Left. The radical, anti-war Left which spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting anti-war candidates and so brought about Lieberman's defeat in the Democratic primaries, made a decisive contribution to the Republican defeat in the general election. The threat posed by radical leftist donors, like multi-billionaire George Soros who have launched a crusade against all proponents of the war against radical Islam, makes Democrats and Republicans alike want to put the Iraq war behind them before the 2008 elections.
THIS IS the Washington that will greet Olmert during his visit on Monday. If fortunes had been reversed and Olmert were arriving in Washington after a Republican victory, had he be inclined to do so, Olmert could have used the visit as an opportunity to communicate a number of critical messages.
First, he could have recalled that Bush qualified US support for Palestinian statehood on a Palestinian embrace of democracy, peace, and active opposition to terrorism. Since by electing totalitarian terrorists to power the Palestinians have proven incontrovertibly that they oppose democratic values of freedom and human rights, support terror, and oppose peaceful coexistence with Israel, Bush's continued support for Palestinian statehood makes a mockery of his support for democracy in the Middle East.
As for Iran, if the Republicans had been victorious, Olmert could have made clear to Bush that history will judge him not only by what he has done in Iraq, but by what he will do against Iran and North Korea. Olmert could have presented a plan for a joint Israeli-American operation to destroy Iran's nuclear installations.
But of course, the Republicans lost the elections. Politicians and defense secretaries who would have willingly listened to such messages from an Israeli prime minister have been booted out of office, thrown into the back benches of Congress, and fired by Bush.
Today Israel stands alone against the Palestinians. More disturbingly, the responsibility for preventing Iran from achieving nuclear capabilities has moved conclusively from Washington to Jerusalem.
If Olmert were a strong leader, in light of the Republican defeat and Bush's response to that defeat, he could use the meeting as an opportunity to tell Bush that Israel accepts responsibility for attacking Iran's nuclear installations. But Olmert, who spent his last visit in the US capital trying to convince the Americans to support his plan to surrender Judea and Samaria to Hamas, is not a strong leader. He is a weak leader. The new wind blowing out of Washington will easily cast him asunder.
In truth, little good will come from Monday's meeting at the White House. It is too bad he can't simply cancel it. Israel would be better off if Olmert called in sick on Monday morning.