He may not have been as bad a speller as Dan Quayle (of infamous potato/e fame), but George Bush’s poor spelling skills, according to an essay by Israeli journalist Ari Shavit in today’s New York Times, served to dramatically weaken the United States’s international prestige.
Bush’s insertion of a “q” where an “n” belonged – translation: his decision to focus his foreign policy attention on Iraq instead of Iran – led the U. S. to make a tragic miscalculation.
“The Bush administration’s decision to go after Iraq rather than Iran was a fatal one, and the long-term consequences are only now becoming clear, namely a devastating American failure in the battle to prevent a nuclear Iran, reflected in Washington’s willingness to sign a deeply flawed agreement.”
He then muses counterfactually:
"If Mr. Bush had decided to display American leadership and exercise American power by launching a diplomatic campaign against Iran rather than a military one against Iraq 10 years ago, the United States’ international standing would be far greater today....
The correct way to confront the Iranian threat would have been to establish a broad coalition including Russia, the European Union, Sunni Arab countries, Israel, and the United States. This would have placed Iran’s leaders in a real stranglehold and forced them to abandon their nuclear project — just as Libya did in 2003."
Shavit’s argument is a clear example of present-day regrets fueling “what if?” fantasies.
Whether they are fully warranted is another story. It is unclear whether acting to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions would have been possible so long as Saddam Hussein – America’s chief perceived enemy in the region – remained in power.
Bush’s obsession with removing him one way or another (and thus rectifying his father’s major mistake from the first Gulf War) probably prevented American officials from seeing the urgency of the Iranian threat. But the urgency that many perceive today was itself a function of the Iraq war. The threat posed by Iran was arguably kept in check as long as Saddam remained in power. As is well known, the U. S. invasion of Iraq and the country’s ensuing collapse created a vacuum that an emboldened Iran quickly filled. The country's growing sense of vulnerability (with American forces on both its eastern and western frontiers) may have intensified its push for a nuclear weapon. It's possible that Iran never would have pursued this aggressive foreign policy without the Iraq invasion. The U. S. may indeed have made a serious mistake in focusing on Iraq instead of Iran. But it’s doubtful that things could have really gone that differently as Shavit wishes. It’s doubtful that Bush ever would have seen Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khameini as a more pressing threat than Saddam as long as the latter continued to rule Iraq. And so the “what if?” scenario runs aground on the shoals of historical inevitability.