Conventional wisdom says there are two possible directions for the remaining years of the Bush administration: 1. Muddle along and hand off the mess that they've created to someone else. 2. Double down on their bet. Make things much worse by getting involved in a broader war in the Middle East either by entangling us in the Israeli conflict or attacking another Muslim country, e.g. Syria or Iran.
I agree that those are by an order of magnitude the two most likely outcomes. But of course there is a third way. He could change course.
Imagine what would happen if George Bush brokered a real peace deal in the Middle East. I know it seems absurd and I know there's no way he's going to do that while holding on to the ridiculous "bomb our way to democracy" and "first strikes rock" doctrines. But what if Nixon went to China?
What if Condoleezza Rice won the internal turf battles and convinced George Bush that he would have a real legacy if he converted all of his tough talk into leverage needed to actually strike a deal with the Iranians. A deal that would stabilize Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and, most importantly, Israel and Palestine.
Would he have to make concessions? Absolutely. Would he get everything he wants in the deal? No way. Would the neocons be furious and send Dick Cheney to yell at the president? Of course. But if he was willing to stomach all that, he could come out with a historic peace deal.
Here's the outline of the deal:
1. Iran reins in Hezbollah in Lebanon and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Iraq. The US pressures Israel to withdraw to near the 1967 borders and promises to withdraw most of its troops from Iraq within eighteen months.
2. Iran promises to give up its nuclear weapons program and agrees to strict weapons inspections (some compromise is reached in the civilian nuclear program, probably involving a third country like Russia). The United States promises to not use military force in trying to implement regime change in Iran.
3. A regional cooperative is formed that is the first responder in local flare-ups. Before anyone takes unilateral action, they must bring up the issue to the regional roundtable. For example, if Hamas starts firing rockets into Israel from Gaza, all of the countries must try to reach consensus in bringing pressure to stop Hamas (financial, political and ultimately military pressure). If the regional group is unresponsive and the problem is still not addressed, then the aggrieved country can take action. This is a measure that at least gives peace a chance in every flare-up before hostilities escalate.
Of course, some people will find this proposal unrealistic because we actually give up some of our prerogatives here. But I ask this very simple question - so what? What are we really losing in this deal? The right to invade Iran, the right for Israel to always strike before asking questions and the right to stay in Iraq indefinitely. It's not that much to give up for a real peace deal in the Middle East.
Will the Iranians and Arab countries in the Middle East bite on the offer? Yes. For two reasons. The Arab governments just want to be left alone. They want to make sure they are not toppled by the US or by Muslim fundamentalist anger rising up from the streets. And Iran gains the ability to influence Iraq, and beyond, with the US withdrawal.
That last part might not sound so good to us, but that is an inevitable happenstance anyway. We can't keep troops in Iraq forever and the Iraqi Shiites will always have a natural alliance with the Iranian Shiites. Recognizing this obvious geopolitical fact doesn't it make any more or less true.
In reality, the biggest stumbling block is Israel's willingness to withdraw to something resembling the 1967 borders (with exceptions made for the larger West Bank settlements) and the Palestinians willingness to accept this deal. I understand that this is the Gordian knot we have never been able to get past in the Middle East. But that's partly because we never seriously considered cutting it before.
This is what I mean. Israel must accept the deal or they lose every cent of US aid. They are totally cut off. Palestinians must accept the deal or we completely withdraw our two state solution. They are cut off and lose any hope of lifting the oppression of occupation.
This is where it gets implausible because of our domestic lobbies. AIPAC would deliver the head of any politician that threatens Israel's funding on a platter. But I thought George Bush was a tough guy who didn't care about the polls and created his own realities. It would be disappointing to find out that he was faint of heart after all.
After this type of deal is made, then we can go back to trying to foster democracies in the Middle East without worrying as much about the power Muslim fundamentalists would gain. We would have empowered Arab moderates who brokered the deal and brought home the spoils of peace.
You have to wonder why we've never tried to empower the moderates and alienate the extremists in the Middle East before. It would seem to be far better strategy than doing the opposite through shocking (and awing) bombing campaigns.
If we just spent half the money we would normally spend occupying Iraq for the next ten years on investments in Middle Eastern infrastructure, we would be the most popular country in the Arab world. Give everyone in the Middle East an internet connection and they'll be wearing jeans rather than a burqa in less time than you could say Paris Hilton.
Nothing I've stated is undoable. In fact, it can be argued that George W. Bush is uniquely situated to make this happen. Other US administrations might not be able to pull this off because our Middle Eastern negotiating partners might not believe the alternative to peace is so bad. But under Bush, they have to realize he's crazy enough to start a war so calamitous that it could bring down all their governments.
He could argue that if they don't like Condi, he can give them Cheney instead. And if he gives them Cheney, we're all Dicked. Believe me, nobody wants to go hunting with the Vice President, not even Ahmedinejad.
So, don't tell me it's not possible. Don't tell me that there were never any constructive alternatives offered. This is doable and if the president did it, he would go from all time goat to a timeless legend. Nixon going to China would be nothing compared to Bush going to Iran.
Do I think he's going to do it? Of course not! I don't think he has it in him. He is not that grand and he is not that wise. So, instead it will be a presidency that will be remembered for gross incompetence, enormous tactical errors and historic deceptions. But it's not like he didn't have a chance to turn all of that around, even this late in the game.
What separates George Bush from all other bad presidents is not his ability to get himself in a hole, but his fervent insistence on digging in further. It's not easy to be the worst president of all time. You really have to work at it.