Washington — Call it history's revenge or the Nixon-goes-to-China syndrome run amok: Events in the Middle East now force political leaders to eat vows never to do certain things and then pronounce the dish tasty. Their reversals carry seeds of hope for a desperate region.
The Bush administration promised never ever to nation-build or to engage itself deeply in pushing Israelis and Palestinians to make peace. Yet Washington undertakes both, with mixed but valuable advances in Iraq and in the flickering peace process.
Israel's warrior-politician, Ariel Sharon, is abandoning his Likud Party and is taking risks by advancing visible concessions to Palestinians. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak - who once told an American diplomat that democratic reforms were a good concept but would not happen while he ruled - is haltingly and spitefully letting his system become more open as pressure for democratic change spreads in other Arab lands.
A significant terrorist attack in Israel or a sudden whim by Egypt's aging autocrat could stymie the reversals I cite. Yes, it is still the Middle East.
"But it is a Middle East in which those who believe in democracy and civil society are finally actors, even though we still face big obstacles," says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt's battle-scared democratic activist.
Ibrahim originally opposed the invasion of Iraq. But it "has unfrozen the Middle East, just as Napoleon's 1798 expedition did. Elections in Iraq force the theocrats and autocrats to put the issue of democracy on the agenda, even if only to fight against us. Look, neither Napoleon nor President Bush could impregnate the region with political change. But they were able to be the midwives," Ibrahim told me in Washington.
Egypt has allowed non-governmental organizations to monitor local elections this month, and is permitting more freedom of expression in a handful of independent newspapers recently established there. "The regime still cheats in elections, but less than before," said Ibrahim to explain his relative optimism.
By Israeli standards such change is glacial. Sharon upended Israeli politics this week by quitting Likud and announcing he would form a new party for snap elections in March. The prime minister implied that his decision was driven by opposition in Likud to his ceding territory occupied in 1967 to Palestinian control.
But Sharon's decision was a fascinating mix of low and high motives, of immediate tactical concerns about his faltering control over Likud and a strategic belief that Israeli security can be best protected by abandoning Likud's dream of a Greater Israel stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
"The security hawk in Sharon has won over the ideological hawk," says an Israeli analyst personally friendly to but politically critical of this battlefield hero of three Israeli military campaigns. "If he keeps power he will withdraw from isolated settlements in the West Bank to defend core Israeli security interests, as he did in Gaza."
Sharon as a commander mastered the most difficult military maneuver - to escape forward, to fight through enemy lines when seemingly surrounded and regain the initiative. He has now adapted that maneuver to his political wars with Likud's far right.
Without the active aid of his son Omri, who has just concluded a plea bargain with prosecutors on illegal fundraising charges, Sharon probably could not have bested Binyamin Netanyahu in the internal Likud contest to pick a leader for March elections, which were forced by the withdrawal of the Labor Party from Sharon's governing coalition.
Sharon will fight from the center, branding the Labor Party's new leaders as union bosses who will wreck the economy, and blasting Netanyahu as a power-mad extremist who will bring more war. Sharon's brightest credential in the campaign may well be the strong support he has amassed from President Bush and his administration.
This is a far march from Sharon's America-be-damned invasion of Lebanon in 1982. That disaster appears to have taught the general the limits of Israeli power, even when it possesses the strongest army. Similarly, he seems to have learned that he cannot govern in a crisis from Likud's narrow ideological platform. He needs to construct a centrist coalition to do that. His hope is to dominate the badly fragmented Knesset that will emerge from the new election and bring ousted Labor leader Shimon Peres into a new coalition.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice kept the Gaza withdrawal momentum rolling by helping Israelis and Palestinians bridge picayune differences on border arrangements this month. If she found herself in a place she neither expected nor originally wanted to be, at least she had plenty of company.