Expect the Bush administration to continue to make the Middle East the center of American foreign policy. Also expect its strategies to remain basically unchanged – despite their mixed record so far.
That's the message in a major foreign policy document issued last week by the White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Mandated by law to appear every four years, the NSS, 49 pages long, was written by the national security advisor, Stephen Hadley and his team.
The Middle East's outsized role comes across in various ways. In a cover letter, President Bush opens the report by stating "America is at war" and describing the enemy as "terrorism fueled by an aggressive ideology of hatred and murder, fully revealed to the American people on September 11, 2001." The report singles out the Middle East as the region that "continues to command the world's attention" because for too long, many of its countries "have suffered from a freedom deficit. Repression has fostered corruption, imbalanced or stagnant economies, political resentments, regional conflicts, and religious extremism."
Other indications point to the centrality of the Middle East and Gulf states. Iraq is mentioned by name 57 times, while China is named just 28 times and Russia 17. The most dangerous state? "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran," asserts the report. And the Syrian regime, which "has chosen to be an enemy of freedom, justice, and peace," will be held to account.
This focus on the Middle East makes sense, given the region's many urgent threats to America. Unfortunately, the NSS then insists on a rosy-tinted outlook, either understating the region's problems or approaching them too optimistically.
Circumstances in Iraq are presented as a mere challenge to be overcome. "We will work with the freely elected, democratic government of Iraq – our new partner in the War on Terror – to consolidate and expand freedom, and to build security and lasting stability" – as though the specter of civil war were not looming.
That "every time an American goes to a gas station," as Gal Luft puts it," he is sending money to America's enemies," is a rude problem absent from the NSS, other than a vague acknowledgment that "oil revenues fund activities that destabilize [the producers'] regions or advance violent ideologies."
The report minimizes the threat of radical Islam via the fiction that a "proud religion" has been "twisted and made to serve an evil." Not so: Islamism is a deeply grounded and widely popular version of Islam, as shown by election results from Afghanistan to Algeria. Reliable opinion polls are lacking from majority-Muslim countries but repeated surveys in Britain give some idea of the harrowingly extremist attitudes of its Muslim population: 5 % of them support the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks in London and say more such attacks are justified; 20% have sympathy with the feelings and motives of the July 7 attackers and believe that suicide attacks against the military in Britain can be justified. These results are probably typical of Muslim populations globally, as recent polls of Indonesians and Palestinian Arabs confirms.
The NSS omits any mention of Turkey and Bangladesh and it refers to Saudi Arabia only in passing, suggesting that the Islamist leadership in these states poses no particular concern. The administration's grievous error in helping a terrorist organization, Hamas, reach power in January 2006 is glossed over with soothing words ("The opportunity for peace and statehood … is open if Hamas will abandon its terrorist roots and change its relationship with Israel").
Thus does the NSS accurately reflect the yin and yang of the Bush administration's Middle East policy: a much-needed, relentless focus on the region's sick political culture and the threats it poses to Americans, mixed with an insouciance that current policies are just fine, thank you, everything is on track, and problems – Iraq, terrorism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular – will soon enough be resolved.
Significantly, only the Iranian drive for nuclear weapons does not inspire that glow of confidence. Here, the administration is frankly worried ( "if confrontation is to be avoided," states the NSS, diplomatic efforts must succeed in convincing Tehran to restrict its nuclear program to peaceful purposes). This observer wishes that comparable doubts accompanied other American policies in the region.