How in the world did George W. Bush manage to turn Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the "Supreme Leader" of "Axis of Evil" Iran, into a prophet of peace in the Middle East?
That is the disturbing question that must be asked after Iraq's president journeyed this week to plead for support from what was previously described by the White House as one of the world's most menacing rogue regimes.
The White House is desperately twisting itself into knots to find a way out of an Iraq debacle sure to top the political agenda in the '08 presidential election. Having idiotically dug ourselves a terribly deep hole in Iraq--remember when protesters against the war were mocked for using the word "quagmire"?--Bush is now forced to beg Syria and Iran to throw us a rope.
As the Bush-appointed and James Baker-led Iraq Study Group has telegraphed, the cooperation of these two pariah states is essential to an effective exit strategy. In reality, this is not so much a change in policy as it is an acknowledgment of a truth-on-the-ground that has been clear since the invasion 44 months ago: Our sworn enemies were the biggest beneficiaries of our overthrow of Iraq's secular dictatorship.
We should call this the Boomerang War. Bush threw it, but it keeps coming back and hitting us all on the head. A defanged secular dictatorship has been replaced with the anarchy of a deadly civil war between competing bands of religious fanatics. The most likely model now is Iranian-style theocracy as the majority Shiite population has turned to political parties and armed militias groomed, trained and nurtured by the fundamentalist ayatollahs across the Iranian border. Confirmation of this militant Shiite takeover was provided in a confidential memo by White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley (posted Wednesday on The New York Times website), stating that Prime Minister Maliki has been either ineffective in opposing or secretly supporting the takeover of Baghdad by fanatical Shiite militias.
And don't expect Tehran's theocrats to be magnanimous in victory. The key message from Ayatollah Khamenei on Tuesday was, as the BBC headline put it, "U.S. troops must leave Iraq if security is to be restored." This is not idle chitchat when it comes from a man who possesses perhaps the most influence with the violent Shiite militias that now form both the backbone of Baghdad's "democratic" government and one side of what NBC and other major media outlets are finally willing to call a civil war.
So it is that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was so desperate in his pleas to the ayatollah, admitting that "We are in dire need of Iran's help in establishing security and stability in Iraq."
Of course he is, because six years of Bush's foreign policy has had the presumably unintended consequences of elevating radicals and theocrats into positions of dominance throughout the region, from Iraq, Lebanon, the West Bank and even, this past week, to the oil emirate Bahrain, where Shiite and Sunni radical Islamists split elections in an upset.
"It looks like our parliament will be dominated by people who see themselves only as Sunnis or Shiites," said Fowad Shihab, a political science professor at Bahrain University. "These are the same Islamists that are gaining control across the Arab world."
Simply put, the neoconservative geniuses who believed invading Iraq would bolster both U.S. and Israeli interests in fact have accomplished the exact opposite--handing both military and public-relations victories to their sworn enemies. Similarly, the international movement to restrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been struck a possible death blow as a desperate United States may be forced to accommodate Iran's nuclear ambitions, just as it did those of Pakistan.
On the other hand, if the Bush administration dares to move militarily against Iran, as it has an almost uncontrollable itch to do, we will become mired in a bloody conflict that will know no borders. Nobody knows this better than Bush's father, with his vast intelligence background, and that is precisely why he has dispatched Baker to corral the ever-impetuous Bush the Younger.
It is hoped that old hands Baker and incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates can make the best of a terrible situation, which can and likely will get much worse if we "stay the course." The key is to eschew the presumption of our own nation's virtue in every situation and instead doggedly to pursue stability through pragmatic compromise in an inherently unstable world.
After all, if Richard Nixon could make a fair peace with China's dictator-for-life Mao Tse-tung, then George W. Bush can learn to live with the ayatollahs.