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The Obama Effect in Lebanon, the Bush Defect in Gaza

June 9, 2009

In the wake of the surprisingly strong showing by the pro-Western coalition in Sunday's elections in Lebanon, the debate is raging as whether President Obama can take any credit for it. McClatchy, Newsweek, Politico, the AP and a host of others pondered whether the President's dazzling speech in Cairo and recent diplomatic efforts in Beirut amounted to an "Obama Effect" which helped blunt Hezbollah and its allies, or instead played little role in the face of competing Christian factions, Saudi cash and other decidedly local factors.
Regardless, the contrast could not be more stark with the Bush administration's calamitous bungling of the 2006 Palestinian elections that swept Hamas to power. Immediately after that debacle which took the Bush White House completely by surprise, a stunned Condoleezza Rice could only muster, "I've asked why nobody saw it coming." Making matters worse, subsequent U.S. covert action sponsored by President Bush in support of Fatah boomeranged disastrously, helping fuel the June 2007 civil war which produced the Hamas conquest of Gaza.
As I described in March 2008, the seeds of Bush's catastrophe were planted early in his presidency.
That spring, Vanity Fair provided a devastating assessment of the Bush team's latter day Bay of Pigs:

After failing to anticipate Hamas's victory over Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, the White House cooked up yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs. With confidential documents, corroborated by outraged former and current U.S. officials, David Rose reveals how President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.

Of course, to counter the growing strength of Fatah's rival in the Gaza and the Palestinian Territories, the Bush administration needed to first at least acknowledge the existence of Hamas. And as I wrote in the run-up to the November 2007 Annapolis summit, that is precisely what the revisionist history of President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice refused to do.
As Rice prepared to host the Middle East summit in Annapolis in late 2007, her State Department has issued an updated historical timeline of American efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The timeline is a fascinating document both for what it reveals and what it leaves out. The rise of Hamas and its election victories are mentioned nowhere. That might just be because President Bush's hands-off policy of malign neglect is in part responsible for it.
The State Department's "Middle East Peace Chronology" lists key events, American diplomatic initiatives and other international efforts dating back to the Camp David accords brokered by Jimmy Carter in 1978. The Oslo Accords, peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, the Wye River summit are all described. The 2003 premiership and later 2005 presidential election Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas ("Mahmoud Abbas wins the Palestinian presidential elections with 62.3 percent of the votes cast") are detailed. The November 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, an act of God central to President Bush's policy in the region, is listed as well.
What is glaringly absent from the Condi Rice's picture of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is any mention of Hamas. That group, part political party, part social organization, part terrorist organization, is excluded despite constituting the central reality on the ground over the past two years. Its forces now control Gaza, having routed the Fatah cadres there. And in January 2006, Hamas won an overwhelming victory in the Palestinian elections, capturing 76 of 132 seats in the parliament to only 43 for Abbas' Fatah.
Given the centrality of democracy promotion to the Bush Doctrine, the omission of the Hamas victory at the polls might seem puzzling. But that seeming mystery disappears upon reflection. After all, the rise of Hamas was not only a disaster for the Bush administration; it was the by-product of its own strategy in the region. And worse still, no one in President Bush's cabinet saw it coming.
In 2006, Secretary of State Rice admitted as much. As the New York Times detailed:

"I've asked why nobody saw it coming," Ms. Rice said, speaking of her own staff. "It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse."

Despite the infusion of American cash and USAID resources to Abbas' party in the run-up to the elections, Hamas won its smashing victory. But in retrospect, that outcome should have been no surprise. The Palestinian voters rejected the rampant corruption and economic stagnation of the Fatah government, as well as its utter failure to make headway in countering the Israeli occupation. And perhaps just as important, President Bush's years-long refusal to negotiate with Yasser Arafat left Fatah impotent and emasculated.
In March 2002, Israeli forces assaulted Arafat's Ramallah compound in the wake of Palestinian terrorist attacks and the PLA's efforts to acquire weapons. By that summer, President Bush in essence endorsed the Ariel Sharon's position that Arafat was "irrelevant" and "an enemy" that "will be isolated." In a major address on June 24, 2002, Bush announced that the United States would no longer work with Arafat's Palestinian Authority, a government he claimed had "no authority" and was "unaccountable." Calling for "new Palestinian leadership," Bush ironically foreshadowed the disastrous Hamas landslide to come:

"I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts."

But only in the twilight of his presidency, did President Bush offer the appearance of engagement in helping resolve the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps the central factor in global Muslim animus (and Al Qaeda propaganda) towards the United States, the Israeli occupation was not an issue on which Bush would expend effort and political capital.
Not, that is, until the very end of his presidency. With his eyes fixed not on events on the ground in the Middle East but on his legacy, in January 2008 George W. Bush confidently predicted an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty would be signed within one year:

"I believe it's going to happen, that there will be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office...I'm on a timetable. I've got 12 months."

It is, they say, better to be lucky than good. In Lebanon, President Obama may have been both. But in his failed efforts to advance the Middle East peace process, George W. Bush ultimately was neither.

One comment on “The Obama Effect in Lebanon, the Bush Defect in Gaza”

  1. We may very shortly be seeing the "Obama effect" in Iran!
    Of course the neocons are rooting for another term for Ahmadinejad, but the funny thing about progress is, once people get a taste of it they rarely want to go back...


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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