July 18, 2008 – History can be very harsh and subjective. It seems that the significant accomplishments of President Bill Clinton will be unfortunately overshadowed by his personal indiscretions while in office. Historians will never shy from emphasizing that he was the second U.S. president to be impeached by the House of Representatives. Clinton’s legacy, as a result, has been sadly tarnished.
How will historians judge the legacy of President George W. Bush? And, as he approaches the end of his second term, is it possible for him to influence or redefine his legacy?
The answer to the first question is not favorable. During his tenure, the Iraq war was poorly conceived and implemented. It is now a quagmire with no end in sight. With more than a half-trillion dollars and counting, this war is affecting essential programs here at home. Hurricane Katrina also proved that Washington was incapable of responding efficiently to natural disasters on the home front. And then there is the economy. Most economists would agree that the country is in a recession and possibly a severe one. More Americans are finding themselves jobless every week. The high cost of energy is compounding matters, and polls are giving the administration a very low performance rating—confirming that the nation is going in the wrong direction.
What could overshadow the Iraq war, Katrina and bad economy to provide a new defining moment? The answer is Iran.
Bush could reshape his legacy in the few remaining months of his administration by attacking Iran’s nuclear installations. If this is done successfully, without escalating the conflict in the Middle East, history would define his administration as the one that denied, or slowed substantially, Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. It would be framed as good against evil, with good prevailing in a Hollywood-style production. If Bush decides to pursue such a plan, the ideal time would be after the Nov. 4 presidential election. Why not before? If the plan fails, Sen. John McCain and many Republican candidates could be political casualties.
Yet such a decision may prove to be just as erroneous as the Iraq fiasco.
The ramification of such an attack is likely to have a spillover effect on the entire Middle East, further destabilizing the region. If Iran is attacked, the following is likely to happen:
1. Iranians would rally around their leadership. An attack, which would be undoubtedly viewed as an insult, would galvanize the population and embolden the radical Islamic leadership—extending the life span of the autocratic mullahs. Furthermore, polls conducted in Iran have been very favorable toward the U.S. This positive feeling is likely to vanish and be transformed into hostility with long-term negative consequences.
2. Iran would use its strong interest and presence in Iraq to ensure that the mirage of tranquility is over. Heavily armed militias that take their orders from Iran would flare up, creating destabilizing conflicts across Iraq.
3. Iran is likely to avenge the attack by restricting the flow of oil in the Strait of Hormuz. It could also target the nearby U.S.-friendly Gulf nations, attacking their energy installations. The already-high price of oil is likely to soar, further strangling global economies.
4. Lebanon’s Hezbollah is fated to react against an attack on Iran. For Hezbollah, Tehran is as sacred as the Vatican to Catholics. They feel a much closer affinity and loyalty to the Iranian leadership than to the central Lebanese government in Beirut. Their religious bond with Iran is far stronger to their national identity as Lebanese. Hezbollah would view a U.S. attack as one coordinated with Israel and would likely retaliate by attacking Israel and igniting a repeat of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.
Attacking Iran may camouflage the legacy of the Bush administration. Yet redefining the president’s legacy by a conflict with Iran may prove to be an even more dangerous path than that of Iraq.
Will there be a dark day in November? Let’s hope not.