Published: December 15 2008 19:37 | Last updated: December 15 2008 19:37
When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously banged his shoe on the desk at the United Nations almost 50 years ago, Harold Macmillan, the equally famously phlegmatic British prime minister, said: “I’d like that translated, if I may.”
George W. Bush, who ducked a volley of shoes from an enraged Iraqi journalist at a press conference in Baghdad on Sunday, professed to be perplexed. This was an epic insult intended for a serial bungler. But, like the shoes, it too went straight over his head. Mr Bush, who has buried America’s reputation throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds in the ruins of Iraq, did not, does not and will never get it.
The Bush administration, on a false prospectus, broke the state of Iraq, scattered its middle classes across the Middle East, proliferated jihadism and uncorked a sectarian war that will haunt the region for a long time to come. By invading Iraq it also made Iran a regional power.
Diligent reporting by institutions such as the US Government Accountability Office reveals the Bush team had no strategy beyond triumphalism and could barely even get the lights turned on or the taps flowing. But with the eclipse of Mr Bush and the advent of Barack Obama there is keen anticipation across the region and some hopeful straws in the wind. The US-Iraqi deal on the status and phased withdrawal of American troops for example was unanimously rejected in October but agreed last month by the Iraqi cabinet. What happened in between was that Americans voted decisively for change, and the leader of Iran’s closest and most powerful Iraqi ally telephoned his ministers in Baghdad to change their vote – from Tehran.
As well as an orderly withdrawal from Iraq, the incoming Obama administration can influence events and restore US prestige in the region in two fundamental ways. First, it must make clear it intends energetically to pursue a Middle East settlement giving a just solution to the Palestinians as well as security to Israel. Second, it should seek a grand bargain with Iran, giving Tehran a stake in the stability of the region, and giving Iran’s neighbours security. That would also increase chances of success in both Iraq and Israel-Palestine. Such a policy could even influence the outcome of next year’s elections in both Israel and Iran.
Iran’s mullahs rely on US hostility to coerce their instinctively pro-American citizens. Israelis hate the idea of any breach with their key ally. Threatened with one in 1992, they kicked out the irredentist Yitzhak Shamir and elected the peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin.