The Middle East has so defined the presidency of George W. Bush that historians will, I expect, judge him primarily according to his actions there. And so, too, will American voters in just more than a week, when they go to the polls.
It has not been fully appreciated that, when it comes to the Middle East, Bush has systematically responded to the region's problems by dispatching decades' worth of accepted practices and replacing them with stunningly different approaches. In contrast, John Kerry unimaginatively holds to failed policies of the past.
Bush has upturned U.S. policy in four main areas.
War rather than law enforcement. From the beginning of Islamist violence against Americans in 1979 (including the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, for 444 days), Washington responded by seeing this as a criminal problem and responded by deploying detectives, lawyers, judges and wardens. On Sept. 11, 2001, itself, Bush declared that we are engaged in a "war against terrorism." Note the word war. This meant deploying the military and the intelligence services, in addition to law enforcement. In contrast, Kerry has repeatedly said he would return to the law-enforcement model.
Democracy rather than stability. "Sixty years of Western nations' excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe." This declaration, made by Bush in November 2003, rejected a bipartisan policy focused on stability that had been in place since World War II. Bush has posed a challenge to established ways such as one expects to hear from a university seminar, not from a political leader. In contrast, Kerry prefers the dull, old, discredited model of stability.
Preemption rather than deterrence. In June 2002, Bush brushed aside the long-standing policy of deterrence, replacing it with the more active approach of eliminating enemies before they can strike. U.S. security, he said, "will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives." This new approach justified the war to remove Saddam Hussein from power before he could attack the United States. In contrast, Kerry waffles on this issue, usually coming out in favor of the old deterrence model.
Leadership rather than reaction in setting the goals for an Arab-Israeli settlement. In June 2003, I dubbed Bush's revamping of U.S. policy to the Arab-Israeli conflict perhaps "the most surprising and daring step of his presidency." Rather than leave it to the parties to decide on their pace, Bush came up with a timetable. Rather than accepting existing leaders, he sidelined Yasir Arafat. Rather than leaving it to the parties to define the final status, he made a Palestinian state the solution. Rather than keep himself out of negotiations until the very end, Bush inserted himself from the start. In contrast, Kerry would go back to the Oslo process and try again the tired and failed effort to win results by having the Israelis negotiate with Arafat.
I have some reservations about the Bush approach, and especially what strikes me as the President's highly personal reading of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but I admire how he has responded to what clearly are the country's worst external problems with energy and creativity. His exceptional willingness to take risks and shake up the malign status quo in the Middle East stands a good chance of working.
It is easy to overlook Bush's radicalism in the Middle East, for in spirit he is a conservative, someone inclined to preserve what is best of the past. A conservative, however, understands that to protect what he cherishes at times requires creative activism and tactical agility.
In contrast, although John Kerry is the liberal, someone ready to discard the old and experiment with the new, when it comes to the Middle East, he has, through his Senate career and in the presidential campaign, shown a preference to stick with the tried and true, even if these are not working.
Ironically, when it comes to the Middle East, it's Bush the radical versus Kerry the reactionary.