Saturday, October 16, 2004

The view from May 2003
I wrote this editorial in May of 2003, two months after the "end" of the war in Iraq. Not only has the situation in Iraq failed to improve in the last 18 months, but nearly every worrisome aspect I noted has gotten worse. The hardliners have totally muscled the moderates out of Iranian politics, the Israelis are busy consolidating their control over the West Bank, and the security situation in Iraq has remained steadfastly miserable, with dozens of Americans and hundreds of Iraqis losing their lives every single month. The hawks truly were wrong. Here's what I wrote:

As the dust settles in Iraq, and as President Bush tries to mend fences with allies, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the hawks were dead wrong about almost everything related to the invasion. The case for war made by think tanks like The Project For a New American Century, and prominent conservatives like William Kristol, was premised on a number of assumptions that now look disingenuous, naïve, counter-intuitive, or all three.

The first assumption was that Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime in Iraq represented an immediate threat to the United States, due to a conventional military threat other Middle Eastern states, and a more nebulous threat from WMD programs. But the regime’s quick collapse and the lack of casualties inflicted on the allies by the Iraqi military clearly points to the smashing success of the prewar strategy of containment. And the fact that not even a trace of prohibited weaponry has been found calls into question the hysterical WMD fears pushed by the hawks.

A more important assumption was that the war would be followed by a quick and fluid transition to democracy. Goaded on by Iraqi exiles, prominent hawks spoke as if instituting Iraqi democracy would be as easy as conducting a gubernatorial election, and that a U.S. occupation would be welcomed, and would soon become unnecessary anyway after Iraqis took control of their own fate. But with ethnic tensions boiling, demonstrators calling for U.S. troops to leave, and law-and-order still a distant fantasy, postwar Iraq is looking a lot more like Lebanon after the Israeli invasion rather than Pennsylvania.

But the boldest supposition was that an invasion of Iraq would magically redraw the geopolitical map of the whole region. With the Iraqi “threat” neutralized, the U.S. could make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And cowed by U.S. military might and the specter of free people successfully overthrowing tyranny next door, dictators in Iran, Syria, and Egypt would either be toppled or forced to relinquish control to reformers. And it would certainly convince these leaders that the pursuit of WMD doesn’t pay.

But the hawks were wrong again. Syria and Iran are not playing the parts envisioned for them in this grand scenario. Bashir al-Assad of Syria has made some promises to close offices of Palestinian rejectionist groups, but this isn’t exactly what everyone was after. Iran, while it has temporarily agreed to compromise on its nuclear ambitions, has strengthened ties with Syria and Lebanon while continuing work on nuclear reactors. To make matters worse, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly humiliated Colin Powell and the Bush administration by rejecting the “Road Map” before finally “accepting” it with a number of reservations that are likely to doom the entire enterprise.

Their domino strategy having failed, the hawks are now ratcheting up the pressure on a defiant Iran. While military action against the Iranian state is still a distant and hypothetical possibility – left-wing histrionics notwithstanding – clerical refusal to bow to U.S. demands has demonstrated once again the hawks’ massive ignorance of Middle East realities. These foolish assumptions all come from a group of people which routinely chides academics for not making the correct predictions.

The geostrategic key to change in the Middle East remains – as it was before the war -- the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From Syria’s occupation of
Lebanon to pan-Arab and Islamic resentment of U.S. support for Israel, a viable
Palestinian state alongside Israel would immediately change the political situation in the Middle East for the better. The longer statehood is delayed, the more popular Hamas and other rejectionist groups become, and the harder it will be for the new Palestinian state to crush terror.

The release of the “Geneva Accord” negotiated by leading Israeli leftist Yossi Beilin and his Palestinian counterpart Abed Rabbo, demonstrates the emptiness of the claim that there is “no one to talk to” on the Palestinian side, or that the Palestinians don’t really want peace. And for those who would conspire to paint all Palestinians as bloodthirsty villains, opinion polls demonstrate that 85% of Palestinians support a mutual cessation of violence.

Two months after the end of the war, the Middle East looks more unstable and violent than ever. Far from being weakened, dictators have drawn new strength from popular resentment over U.S. actions. Far from creating the opportunity for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the war was a sideshow merely delayed the
inevitable refusal of the Sharon government to make a genuine effort at peacemaking.

And far from creating a democratic, stable, Iraq and eliminating a dire threat to U.S. security, the war exposed the weakness of Saddam’s regime and has saddled the U.S. with an endless occupation over an increasingly bitter and fractured population. Iraqis may be free, but they are not safe, they are not particularly grateful, and they certainly aren’t quite on their way to a blissful democratic future. The recent bombings of the Red Cross headquarters, and today’s ambush of a mighty Abrams tank, killing two GI’s, underscores the fragility of the U.S. postwar order in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the hawks are far from seeing the fundamental errors and contradictions in their prewar assumptions, and the Bush administration is far from changing its disastrous diplomatic and strategic posture in the Middle East.


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