Bush could do with new ideas

23 January 2007

Tomorrow, President George W. Bush will deliver his State of the Union address. The speech is widely viewed as his last chance to get it right.


By "it", Americans don't simply mean the war. They mean the world. Bush has no shortage of challenges, from winning Iraq to calming Iran to making Europe relevant as an ally of free countries. My advice to the President: propose new ideas rather than new tactics.
Let us begin with Iraq. What can be done to clean up the mess? Iraqis themselves disagree. Some demand a total pullout of Western soldiers while others say the coalition troops should be increased to enforce stability. Some insist on more control for Iraq's security forces while others say this must wait until they've got better training and equipment. Without consensus born of a national dialogue, any faraway presidential decision will be exactly that: distant and therefore devoid of legitimacy.

So the next step has to be broader than ordering a troop surge or resuscitating the road map for Palestinian-Israeli peace. If this war is all about democracy, why not hold a simultaneous referendum in the US and Iraq about what to do? Politicians from each country would visit the other country to make their case to the people.

Imagine an established democracy and an emerging democracy working together to resolve a conflict of global proportions. From this cross-cultural referendum, the citizens of each country would learn something about the other. Empathy can only be an asset in making decisions and investing them with credibility.

But what about the immediate menace of Iran? Washington refuses to restore diplomatic ties. Although that won't change any time soon, what can change is the role of America's friends in Europe. The European Union could serve as an honest broker between the US and Iran to defuse the nuclear arms race. The key is to engage Iraq's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Here is the idea: Europeans should quietly lobby Sistani to issue a fatwa (legal opinion) against Iran's efforts to go nuclear. Sistani can emphasise that Iran's aggressive drive for nuclear capacity violates the Shia tradition of suffering for the sake of redemption. From the Shia perspective, it is always Sunni Islam that has sought to build empires and horde power. Shi'ites, by contrast, place moral victories over political ones.

That is what the prophet Mohammed's family did hundreds of years ago when fighting a Sunni tyrant. The fight failed, and ever since then Shi'ites have told this story to find meaning in their hardship. Nobody wants hardship, but do Shi'ites want to become Sunnis by resorting to belligerence? A fatwa from Sistani can make this point.

Ordinary Iranians increasingly listen to Sistani because he is a respected scholar of Islamic law and, equally important, he is not corrupted by the power that plagues the clerical class of Iran.

The question is, would the grand ayatollah play? Given that he answers questions from Fox News on his official website,, he probably would talk with the EU.

Moreover, his eminence has a fatwa for every problem, including painfully personal ones. For example, Sistani's website advises young men not to befriend girls, but if you are already friends with a girl, you may temporarily marry her to consummate your lust. Do not, however, shake hands with her. Got it. I think.

Then again, I am no diplomat. The EU, on the other hand, is full of them. Its ambassadors are more than capable of deconstructing and interpreting fatwas on tricky geopolitical issues.

When Bush steps up to the podium tomorrow, he will need to marshal every resource at hand. Let this week mark the start of an effort that is collective, courageous and creative. Above all, let nobody claim that the free world ran out of ideas.

This article was originally published here.