It has become impossible to credibly argue that the Bush Administration"s Middle East policies have advanced the national interests of the United States. After shifting enormous resources toward addressing the problems of the region following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and after cautioning patience through the "birth pangs of democracy," the results have become clear. On every issue that the administration has prioritized -- promoting Arab-Israeli peace, liberating Lebanon from Syrian and Iranian influence, democratizing Egypt, stabilizing Iraq, and containing Iran -- America"s foes have grown stronger and its allies have grown weaker. Even more troublingly, virtually all of these problems are worsening as the administration prepares to leave office.
The problem is not merely one of happenstance or bad luck. Instead, it has to do with fundamental errors in analysis and planning, an intolerance of ambiguity, and a deeply flawed assessment of the capacities of American power.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is a case in point. The Bush Administration has consistently hung back, confident that each side"s urgency would create enough of an engine to move peace forward. In particular, the administration believed that Abbas"s orientation to negotiate gave the U.S. great leverage over the Palestinian side, and that isolating Gaza would demonstrate to Palestinians that even the path taken by a weak Abbas would prove superior to that chosen by a defiant Hamas.
Instead, no one has gotten the message. Israelis hunker down, reluctantly concluding that there is no Palestinian peace partner and that the status quo is acceptable. Palestinians blame Abbas for weakness and a failure in execution, while they excuse Hamas"s many failings as the inevitable consequence of seeking to govern under siege. Fatah has been routed from Gaza, while Hamas is more deeply entrenched, aided in part by the arms and vehicles that the United States poured into Gaza. In addition, Hamas is strengthening in the West Bank, and no side sees its interests advanced by Palestinian reconciliation. It is a recipe not only for suffering, but also for stagnation and stalemate. It will take years to build even the modest momentum present when the president took office.
Lebanon is in similar straits. After the Bush Administration was captivated by the drama of the March 14 movement -- millions of Lebanese taking to the streets to protest against foreign influence in their country -- it has watched that movement grow isolated and wither. Almost two years of concerted efforts to weaken the Hezbollah-led opposition have resulted in opposition forces having enough strength to rout militias associated with the ruling parties in a matter of days. The supposedly neutral army has subtly taken the side of the opposition, and the early signs are that two major parties associated with the government, the Sunni-led Future Party and the Druze-led Progressive Socialist Party, have been eviscerated. Hezbollah has become the dominant force in Lebanon not when the administration wasn"t looking, but when it was, devoting high-profile efforts to support Prime Minister Fouad Siniora"s government.
Indeed, things in the Middle East have gotten so perilous that Iraq is beginning to look like a possible bright spot. Dire as the situation is -- with some 20 percent of Iraqis displaced and untold thousands of deaths -- there is at least the possibility of growing stability. Recent signs of a breakdown in sectarian solidarity are actually positive, as they create the possibility of the kinds of dynamic and shifting coalitions that make democratic governance work.
What went wrong? The administration was certainly clumsy in executing its policies, relying on party loyalists rather than bureaucratic veterans and making rookie mistakes as a consequence. There was also a problem of facts. In the construction of British economist John Kay, evidence-based policy gave way to policy-based evidence. But that is not all of it. Many of the problems trace to the way the president and his staff see the world.
The Bush Administration has had a remarkable proclivity to see the world in a static way. The evil are evil, the good are good, and redemption is rare. Rather than see governments" behavior on a dynamic continuum, its inclination was to put them into categories. Rather than ranking desired changes in target governments according to those governments" constraints and motivations, it often ranked them according to U.S. needs and desires. The U.S. government put forward a bold vision of change in the Middle East, based on an assessment largely of U.S. interests, but also its assessment of the interests of foreign populations. While that vision inspired some, it frightened many, especially those in governments with friendly relations with the United States. As the dust settles, the governments are more secure, and the U.S. vision remains unrealized.
In truth, most actions of foreign governments are flexible, but the price they demand for change can be remarkably high. That is especially so when these governments are asked to take actions that they see as potentially threatening their hold on power, as they saw many U.S. demands as doing. In many cases as well, the will of actors on the ground far exceeded the will of U.S. policymakers. Perhaps even more troublingly for U.S. policy, the will of America"s foes often far exceeded the will of its allies. U.S. policy rarely took account of this.
But there was an equally important failing. That was the conviction that among the most powerful tools that the U.S. government could use against its foes was withholding recognition and refusing dialogue. It is hard to find a single instance in which such boycotts were effective. Rather than being on the ropes, the targets of those efforts -- Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian and Iranian governments, and more -- are all far more secure than they were two years ago. That"s not a birth pang of democracy, it"s a whiff of failure.
Jon B. Alterman is director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.