Not since President Bush stood on the USS Abraham Lincoln May 1, 2003 with a "Mission Accomplished" sign behind him has he been as optimistic about progress in the Iraq War as he was during a meeting with conservative journalists last Wednesday at the White House.
Frequently sitting forward and gesturing with both hands for emphasis, an often smiling and optimistic president said of Iraq there is a "bottom-up reconciliation taking place that's beginning to influence the central government in profound ways." The president indicated he believes recent stories of military successes in defeating al-Qaida and early signs of possible reconciliation between Shia and Sunni factions are allowing Iraq's government to focus on basic things all governments must address.
The president listed some of what he regards as positive signs in Iraq other than military progress, including, "The government is going to pass a budget (that will) increase spending by $8 billion. It's a budget that, when analyzed by relatively objective people, will tell you that it's well done, well thought out, and it's a sharing of revenues from the central government to provincial governments."
Fresh from meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the president said he thinks the Palestinians can "develop a democracy that will exist with Israel in peace." He gave no evidence for this and there is no history of Palestinian-Arab-Muslim nations or people, other than Turkey, ever establishing a government where the people get to choose their leaders and unelected religious leaders and other dictators do not determine their rights.
Still, the president was adamant that no such state would be created until and unless the terror stops. "We wouldn't ask (Israel) to welcome terrorists on her border. On the other hand, we agree with Israel when Israel says that a democracy on her border that recognizes our right to exist would be the best opportunity we have for peace."
Sure it would, but getting there is the problem and every promise made by the Palestinian side remains unfulfilled. The president's conditional statement that terror must first cease before a state is established is welcome. The question becomes will Abbas be portrayed as a helpless victim of the terrorism conducted by Hezbollah and Hamas or a pawn of these organizations, a pawn that quietly believes along with those groups in the eradication of Israel? Some comfort might be taken from the president's pledge that if terrorists takeover the West Bank, as they have done in Gaza, "there won't be a Palestinian state under those conditions."
He said firmly he does not believe the current Palestinian leadership wants to eliminate Israel. That will require proof. The president's word, while welcome, is not enough to quell the concerns of skeptics who have seen these scenarios played out across many administrations and all with the same result.
Speaking of what he called the "ideological" conflict inherent in radical Islam (he scrupulously avoided calling it a religious conflict), the president said the struggle would not end, even if Iraq turns out well. "I think it's a war that's going to last 50 years." Yet, he says old enemies can become friends and cited the Japanese as an example. "Enemies can become allies."
It is a strong analogy. The Japanese under Emperor Hirohito were driven by religious zeal. Many Japanese worshipped Hirohito as a god and were profoundly disturbed when he appeared in public to announce Japan's surrender. Does the analogy hold with radical Islam, which is spread over a far wider area with many more adherents than tiny Japan six decades ago? That is a judgment that also may take 50 years to sort out.
President Bush has made an enormous gamble - In Iraq and with the push for a Palestinian state. If he's right, future historians will regard him as one of this country's greatest presidents. If he's wrong, the United States and the world will be paying the price for his misjudgment for much longer than 50 years. Even his severest critics should hope he's right, regardless of who gets the credit.