George Bush, the Accidental Realist

By creating a Shi‘a Iraq, Bush has superseded the Arab-Israeli balance of power with the Sunni-Shi‘a balance of power, to America’s ultimate advantage.

"Democratization in combat boots" has been a glib but accurate way to describe President Bush's foreign policy. But when the history books a hundred years hence are written, the invasion of Iraq will go down as an old-fashioned balancing-of-power success for U.S. policy. Henry Kissinger should be proud.

By creating a Shi‘a Iraq, Bush has superseded the Arab-Israeli balance of power with the Sunni-Shi‘a balance of power, to America's ultimate advantage. Iraq's important characteristic now is that it is Shi‘a; not necessarily democratic, or liberal, but Shi‘a. And through Iraq, Bush will have reconciled all the American national interests in the Middle East for the first time since 1948.

Why is that? Well, since then, the United States has had three policy objectives in the region. In no order, these were 1) support of Israel, 2) access to oil and 3) democratization. Of these, the United States could choose only two.

If America wanted to help Israel and still buy oil, it had to support rulers who did not represent the popular Arab hatred towards Israel and America. If the United States wanted democratic, oil-friendly states, it couldn't support Israel. And if it wanted to support both Israel and Arab democracy, it wouldn't receive oil from elected anti-Israel Arabs.

This was the Gordian knot. Not anymore.

Bush's war transformed Iraq into a Shi‘a-run country. To that end, Iraq's enormous military and economic power have evened the odds between Sunnis and Shi‘a, making the Sunni-Shi‘a sectarian balance of power in the Middle East roughly equal for the first time in history. In this rebalancing, the traditional Sunnis and the Shi‘a finally have to contend with a more immediate threat than Tel Aviv: each other.

Their traditional enemy, Israel, is in comparison a lesser threat. It is not a threat to Libya, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt or Iraq (a fact which allowed Iraq to remain, for propaganda purposes, "at war" with Israel for decades). It is not even remotely imaginable that Israel would invade, occupy and absorb all of Syria, its bitterest enemy.

Real or not, this minor threat is irrevocably tied to the United States. Without doubt, much of the Arab hatred of America comes from its alliance with Israel. America's support for Israel may be moral and strategic, but it is primarily unalterable. There is no real possibility of abandonment. As such, the United States could never be friends with both sides.

Unlike Israel, however, the Shi‘a ascension is a major threat to the Sunni Arab states. The Iraq War has finally created an alternative regional power bloc that does not de facto include America. And because of the size of the threat, the Sunni-Shi‘a balance takes precedence over the Arab-Israeli one.

The rise of the Shi‘a scares the Sunni fundamentalists (as well as the rulers) far more than the Americans and Israelis ever could, because the Shi‘a are permanent and powerful. They have no helicopters waiting to land on embassies to take them home. They are home. No amount of suicide bombing is going to force the Shi‘a out of Iraq. It will just make the final consolidation of Shi‘a power more brutal.

The Shi‘a -ization of Iraq is an enormous material boon to the Shi‘a bloc, giving it critical mass for the first time in the Arab world. It is an equally major loss to Sunnis, possibly more so, since Iraq served as the eastern bulwark against Shi‘a Iran. Shi‘a power is based in a broad, coalescing sweep of states from Iran to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. Whether measured by population size, natural resources or military strength, Shi‘a power is a bigger threat to Sunnis than Israel ever could be. The Shi‘a have many men close to vulnerable Sunni areas, and will probably soon have nukes. The Sunnis have global Sunni sympathy, the holy places and lots of oil. The traditional Arab Sunni leader, Egypt, is far removed from the fault line. It is virtually even odds.

This sectarian divide is a balance of power that is not only roughly equal, but one in which the Unites States is not tied to either side.

In a power balance, both sides will look for outside assistance, and the United States can be friendly (or at least do business) with both. Yes, the new national sectarian leaders can certainly look elsewhere for support, like China or Russia. They will probably do so. But that one-among-many situation is nonetheless a crucial victory for the United States, since it removes America's ante from the power balance without the abandonment of Israel.

America can now support Israel, buy oil and promote Arab democratization without enabling the rise of hostile, anti-Israeli leaders. Since the sectarian threat-not the Israeli threat-will be the lowest common electoral denominator, Arab democrats will no longer de facto hate the United States. As the Sunni-Shia balance solidifies, Arab democracy will likely produce more U.S.-friendly leaders who will advance American policy regardless of support for Israel.

Perhaps George Bush does not want to be remembered as a Nixon-Kissinger power player. But, whether intentionally or not, the great democratic crusader's most lasting achievement is most likely to bear fruit as a 19th-century triumph of realism.

Andrew Peek is a research assistant in the Foreign Policy division at the Heritage Foundation. His views do not necessarily represent those of the Heritage Foundation.