When this round of fighting in Lebanon is long over, and the denouement in Iraq has become clear, historians may look back at a July 21 quote from Condoleezza Rice as the epitaph for the Bush administration's Mideast policy.
"What we're seeing here," said Rice, while Hezbollah missiles rained on Haifa, and Lebanese civilians fled Israeli bombs, "is the ... birth pangs of a new Middle East. ... We have to be certain that we are pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one."
I had to ask, as I watched Rice's remarks, whether the secretary of state had any idea of what kind of "new Middle East" was being born with American help.
If the Lebanon tragedy is to be resolved without a victory for Hezbollah, and if there is any chance to save Iraq, the White House needs some kind of grip on realities in the region. Yet as Lebanon burns and Iraq convulses, the rhetoric of the Bush team seems ever more removed from the facts on the ground.
This White House has scorned "reality-based" experts on the Middle East and clung to a vision of transforming the region. The essence of this dream (clearly embraced by President Bush, if not by Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld) was supposed to be post-Saddam Iraq: Baghdad would produce the middle-class secular democracy the Pentagon's favored Iraqi exiles had promised. Then "regime change" would follow in Syria and Iran.
No one on the Bush team seems to have noticed that this utopian vision has utterly failed. Nor have they asked why.
Under Saddam, as many experts forewarned, the middle class had shrunk, religiosity had grown, and the country lacked any experience with the compromise politics necessary to make democracy work. Democratic elections have produced a government led by religious parties representing the Shiite majority, parties which are allied with Iran.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who visited Washington last week, has not shown the strength needed to make his national unity government work. Iraq is edging ever closer to a level of disintegration that a few thousand more U.S. troops won't stem.
Iraq has become the anti-model for democratic change in the region - a failed state that gives democracy a bad name, and marginalizes liberals in the area. And the chaos in Baghdad stems directly from a gross American misunderstanding of the Iraqi culture.
Ditto for its misunderstanding of the rest of the region. The most eager adherents of elections these days are the Islamists. Hamas came to power by the vote, and Hezbollah votes won a major role in the Lebanese parliament. In other words, elections alone are no guarantee of momentous change.
My intent here is not to defame democracy but to challenge the White House outlook. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we have to deal with the Middle East we have, not the Middle East we want.
Nowhere is this truer than in Lebanon. The Beirut government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora was the White House's poster child for regional transformation. Huge crowds turned out in Beirut for the "Cedar Revolution." But followers of Lebanon's leading democratic political group, the Future Movement, led by the son of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, now say they feel betrayed by the Bush White House.
They want Hezbollah disarmed and want Lebanon to exert sovereignty over its south. They say the time is ripe for the Siniora government to demand that Hezbollah stand its militia down, but they warn that the government will collapse unless a cease-fire comes soon. They ask what Washington's backing is worth if Bush permits the continued destruction of their country.
The Bush administration, however, sees Lebanon in a broader context of Middle East "transformation." It hopes for an Israeli knockout blow against Hezbollah militias that will send a powerful message to the group's Iranian backers. That view ignores internal Lebanese dynamics that won't permit the destruction of Hezbollah.
Some in the administration, along with neocon pundits, see the Israel-Hezbollah battle as part of a global struggle that pits the West against "Islamofascists" - they call it "World War III." On last Sunday's talk shows, former House speaker Newt Gingrich insisted the White House must pursue Mideast regime change and "use the kind of strategy we used" in Eastern Europe to encourage democratic revolts in terrorist states.
This transformational vision is tidy. But today's terrorists can't be fought with the pitched battles of World War II. Nor does the Middle East resemble Eastern Europe, with its democratic experience and links to the West. Combating terrorists requires a far more sophisticated military and political approach.
No one strategy fits all in the region. Dealing with Hamas requires a focus on the Israel-Palestinian issue, while dealing with Hezbollah requires a focus on Lebanese politics. Unless we confront the Middle East that is, not the vision cooked up by the ill-informed, the regional situation will worsen. And more victories in this "new Middle East" will go to the Islamists, not to democrats.