"The blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard"
Fouad Ajami looks at how George Bush may be remembered when all the political hoopla has died down.
It was fated, or "written," as the Arabs would say, that George W. Bush, reared in Midland, Texas, so far away from the complications of the foreign world, would be the leader to take America so deep into Arab and Islamic affairs.
This is not a victory lap that President Bush is embarking upon this week, a journey set to take him to Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, the Saudi Kingdom, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Mr. Bush by now knows the heartbreak and guile of that region. After seven years and two big wars in that "Greater Middle East," after a campaign against the terror and the malignancies of the Arab world, there will be no American swagger or stridency.
But Mr. Bush is traveling into the landscape and setting of his own legacy. He is arguably the most consequential leader in the long history of America's encounter with those lands.
Ajami makes several basic arguments. The first is that Bush rightly rejected the proposition that Palestine was the center of the Middle Eastern universe and restored matters to the rightful proportion. "The promise of Palestinian statehood still stood, but the force, and the ambition, of Mr. Bush's project in Iraq, and the concern over Iran's bid for power, had shifted the balance of things in the Arab world toward the Persian Gulf, and away from the Palestinians. The Palestinians had been reduced to their proper scale in the Arab constellation. It was then, and when the American position in Iraq had been repaired, that Mr. Bush picked up the question of Palestine again, perhaps as a courtesy to his secretary of state."
The second is that Bush "held the line" at a moment when a huge Islamic madness threatened to overwhelm the region.
Suffice it for them that George W. Bush was at the helm of the dominant imperial power when the world of Islam and of the Arabs was in the wind, played upon by ruinous temptations, and when the regimes in the saddle were ducking for cover, and the broad middle classes in the Arab world were in the grip of historical denial of what their radical children had wrought. His was the gift of moral and political clarity.
In America and elsewhere, those given reprieve by that clarity, and single-mindedness, have been taking this protection while complaining all the same of his zeal and solitude. In his stoic acceptance of the burdens after 9/11, we were offered a reminder of how nations shelter behind leaders willing to take on great challenges.
But Ajami acknowledges that the cost has been great and that the piper now wants to be paid. The challenges that will be posed over the next few years is how far America is willing to keep back the demons roiling the world in places where the local elites are glad of their temporary salvation but are unwilling to face their own problems. America may have held the line against the madness of "Palestine" and the manias of Islam. But what of the Arabians themselves?
In the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, a new oil windfall has rewritten the terms of engagement between Pax Americana and the ruling regimes. It is a supreme, and cruel, irony that Mr. Bush travels into countries now awash with money: From 9/11 onwards, America has come to assume the burden of a great military struggle -- and the financial costs of it all -- while the oil lands were to experience a staggering transfusion of wealth.
Saudi Arabia has taken in nearly $900 billion in oil revenues the last six years; the sparsely populated emirate of Abu Dhabi is said to dispose of a sovereign wealth fund approximating a trillion dollars. The oil states have drawn down the public debt that had been a matter of no small consequence to the disaffection of their populations. There had been a time, in the lean 1990s, when debt had reached 120% of Saudi GDP; today it is 5%. There is swagger in that desert world, a sly sense of deliverance from the furies.
Given the enthusiasm to build up in Afghanistan and resolve the problems in Islamabad and Waziristan, maybe the next President will be remembered as the savior of South Asia; as the man (or woman) who kept Pakistan from being consumed by the fires seething beneath its floorboards. That might be the bitter, ironic and yet inescapable task of the hegemon. Rudy Giuliani mooted the possibility of creating a 'League of Democracies' to perform a role which the UN never did. Maybe that will come not a moment too soon.