Once people hoped that the Iraq War would make Israel safer. The neocons, who cooked up the invasion and sold it to a president desperate for historic glory that would surpass his father's, considered Israel's security to be an excellent side benefit of their splendid little war.
For those who missed the first part of this seemingly endless movie, the immensely popular invasion of Iraq would spark a democratic and moderate upsurge in the Middle East. Regimes would be toppled by popular revolts, whose leaders would have Bush's name on their lips as they called simultaneously for democracy and accommodation with Israel.
Soon the rulers of Iran and Syria would fall and would be replaced by pliant, pro-Israel regimes. Even moderate Arab governments would be rejuvenated by democratic reform from within. Peace would surely follow, for which American military intervention would receive history's credit.
We can put aside for now the question of how people who believed this nonsense ever came to lead the greatest nation on earth -- and, in fact, still run it -- are apparently going to blow off both their recent electoral defeat and the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and "double down" their bet by increasing U.S. military forces in Iraq.
But because of their strong rhetorical support for Israel, the damage done to Israel's regional interests by the Iraq War was masked. Israel is still America's most ardent admirer and loyalist. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently extolled Bush's leadership, and Israel may be one of the few places left on earth where Bush is popular. But has the war made Israel safer?
Several outcomes have emerged from the Iraq War. One is that as long as Bush is president, the United States is politically radioactive in the Middle East. The other is that Iran, Israel's most formidable foe in the region, has been strengthened. No longer facing a hostile Iraq and profiting from America's unpopularity, Iran has greater freedom of action than before.
America's allies in the region are confused and alarmed. Saudi Arabia fears that Americans may withdraw quickly from Iraq, leaving their fellow Sunnis to annihilation by the Shiites allied with Iran. The Saudis recently summoned Vice President Dick Cheney to Riyadh to hear their concerns and have suggested that they would use military means if necessary to protect the Sunnis in Iraq.
Meanwhile, someone in the Bush administration implied that the United States is considering picking the Shiites in the civil war in Iraq in order to crush the Sunni insurgency. That plan could place the United States on a collision course with all of its Arab allies in the Mideast, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
One casualty of even speculating about picking sides is the loss of trust in the steadiness of American foreign policy. Of course, that very steadiness is what the Bush inner circle has long detested, seeing themselves as visionaries eliminating a "false stability" in the Middle East. As George Will acidly noted, at least that goal has now been achieved.
The antics of the Bush administration have motivated all sorts of experts and advisers with plans to help him gracefully exit from his Iraq fiasco. James Baker, an unpopular figure among many friends of Israel from his days as the first President Bush's secretary of state, took charge of the salvage effort called, the Iraq Study Group. Among its recommendations were that the United States talk with Iran and Syria.
But the report also suggested that a deal on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria could help build a better framework for peace. Pressure on Israel to make deals with Syria in order to help the United States exit Iraq may be asking a little too much.
Israel is now stuck between Iraq and a hard place; those in the administration who most uncritically support Israel don't know what they're doing, and those who have better ideas are more critical of Israel.
And so, we are left with what to do about Iran. The Bushies long felt that they could defeat Iran in the same rosy scenario they used with regard to Iraq. In their heady early days, they saw the Iraq War as a precursor to regime change in Iran and Syria (along with their other nemesis, North Korea).
They are dealing with Iranian exiles who tell them that we would be greeted as liberators. At the least, they are certain that an air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be a great and easy success.
Given the failure of this group to execute even the most basic elements of any of their policies, it is hard to have a lot of faith in that confidence. Finally, they presumably believe that Israel will deal with Iran if America can't.
Every one of these scenarios with Iran is based on the absolute certainty of military success. No political or diplomatic concerns are raised or respected.
Yet Carl von Clausewitz provides several useful cautions. He once wrote, "No one starts a war -- or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so -- without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it." And, "War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means."
The argument for engaging our toughest enemies in the Middle East is plain to just about everybody except the Bush inner circle. They have long seen diplomacy with opponents in parent-child terms, a carrot given for good behavior and a stick for being bad. Why get dessert if you haven't eaten your vegetables?
Political engagement and diplomacy, however, do not preclude military action as a last resort. They do assure that war will indeed be a last resort. And they offer possibilities for long-term change, such as strengthening the hand of domestic reformers.
Americans are deeply frustrated by the Iraq War and the seemingly limitless capacity of Bush to be Capt. Ahab fruitlessly chasing the white whale of his own historic vindication. If American frustration leads to a withdrawal of its military capacity in the Middle East, that will surely hurt Israel.
But if pressure can be brought for a broader political and military approach that restores American leadership and credibility in the Middle East, even if that approach has to be initiated by people outside the Bush administration and against the administration's fierce resistance, that can only help Israel in the long run. l
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.