Is it really possible? Is President Bush really that much softer than he was during his first term of office?
The very thought of it is surprising, even energizing; dictators around the Arab world certainly hope so.
The first time around, the Bush administration clearly marked Iraq, Iran, Syria, violent Islamic groups, and even several less-than-democratic regimes, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The American push for democracy has aroused near-panic amongst senior Arab dictators, who are truly worried about the future of their dictatorships.
Indeed, the American pressure brought results.
Physical regime change in Iraq, Gaddafi giving up his weapons of mass destruction, and public opinion rising up against the corrupt dictatorships. Lebanon has dared to show its true face, Syria and Iran are on the defensive, as are organizations such as Hizbullah and Hamas.
Around the Middle East, millions have been watching, waiting, expecting Bush to finish what he started during his first term, especially regarding Iran and Syria.
And all of a sudden, Bush chickens out.
The new American approach gives diplomatic carte blanche to the European Union vis-à-vis Tehran. Instead of a strong-handed policy, Washington has settled for warning Iran while knowing full well the clock is ticking.
Iran is quickly developing not only its nuclear program, but also its long-range missile program.
Syria, despite all its ambiguous promises to withdraw from Lebanon, continues to rule there. The region’s other dictators are watching Assad’s moves very closely, and it is clear that these actions will affect their relations with Washington.
This is why Jordan’s King Abdullah went to America last week - to protest the soft treatment Assad has gotten so far. He told the Americans that if Assad wins this battle, all America’s traditional allies in the region, including Jordan, will see their stock plummet.
As it looks now, the U.S. has abandoned its goal of disarming Hizbullah, it has relinquished the idea of expelling Hamas and Islamic Jihad headquarters from Syria, and it is not exerting pressure on Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to disarm terror organizations or to unite his security forces, as he has pledged to do.
If Arab leaders come to believe that the United States has softened up, this will immediately affect the cautious reforms they have taken, which are all reversible anyway.
Democratization in Egypt may be halted, as would the buds of a more pluralistic approach in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Syria will remain in Lebanon by force of its trickery, Palestinian territory will remain chaotic, and terror in Iraq will get a tail wind. The United Stated must understand that its achievements in the past four years were mainly derived from its hard-line and uncompromising approach, which deterred dictatorial regimes.
American weakness due to loss of interest or a shift in approach may lead the Middle East to more destructive results, as radical and violent factions may eventually triumph.