President Bush leaves office in less than two weeks, with record low job approval ratings, a weak economy, and his party in the minority on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Many would ascribe his current predicament to his decision in 2003 to attack Iraq and topple the government of Saddam Hussein.
But as with all presidents, history has a way of turning, and there is some evidence that the revisionist view of Bush--particularly his presidency-defining decision to attack Iraq--may come very quickly.
Last week, Juan Cole--professor of history at the University of Michigan, expert on both the Arab and Persian worlds and well known critic of Bush and essentially everything he stands for--came up with a list of good news stories showing progress in the Muslim world that the rest of the world didn't notice. His list of ten included:
• The Iraqi and US governments signed the "Status of Forces Agreement." As Cole put it, "The hard negotiations showed a new confidence on the part of the Iraqi political class that they can stand on their own feet militarily."
• Syria has been secretly negotiating with the Israelis
• The crisis of state in Lebanon was patched up. Hezbollahcame into the government and received support as a national guard for the south as long as it pledged not to drag the country into any more wars unilaterally [emphasis added].
• Major Arab pop singers jointly performed an anti-war opera that called for co-existence among the region's Christians, Muslims and Jews and an end to the senseless slaughter. It ran on 15 Arab satellite channels, and one satellite channel ran it nonstop for days.
• King Abdullah II of Jordan pledged an end to press censorship in Jordan.
And, most significant of all:
• A "near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia." "Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" conducted numerous bombings and shootings in the period 2003-2006, during which the Saudi authorities got serious about taking it on. Saudi Arabia produces on the order of 11 percent of the world's petroleum, and instability there threatens the whole world. The dramatic subsiding of terrorism there in 2008 is good news for every one. Opinion polls show support for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia plummeting, and determination to fight terrorism is overwhelming.
Now think about that. Did anything happen in the region in 2003 that might have spurred this--and created the foundation for all the different pieces of good news that Professor Cole cites?
While the Iraqi war was primarily about "Weapons of Mass Destruction," as I recall, the underlying strategic argument was that toppling Saddam Hussein would have several clear benefits:
• Promote Democracy and freedom of expression in the Arab World
• Force governments and civil society in the region to make a choice between radicals and moderates--and enabling moderates to confront radicals directly
• Get countries to confront al Qaeda on their own territory--rather than [some suspected] essentially "paying off" al Qaeda to avoid their home territory and focus on the West instead.
Similarly, there was a belief that the U.S. de facto support of the Israeli 2006 war on Hezbollah would force the Lebanese government to take greater control of Hezbollah.
Now, I'm sure Cole would quarrel with the notion that the elimination of the Baath regime in Iraq or the 2006 war in Lebanon led to any of his examples of "Good News" in the Muslim world. But when no less an authority than Juan Cole is suggesting that the anticipated benefits of those strategies are occurring--then it's pretty clear that others will soon look at them in a very different light than they are currently viewed.