U.S. President George W. Bush and his neoconservative
advisers had pledged that after ousting Saddam Hussein they would succeed in
transforming "liberated" Iraq into a prosperous democracy that would
serve as a model of political and economic freedom for the Middle East.
Remember the Domino Effect that Westernized and secular Mesopotamia would have
had on the rest of the authoritarian government in the region?
The withdrawal of Syria's troops from Lebanon and the so-called Cedar Revolution
were supposed to help eradicate the sectarian splits in that country and make
it possible to disarm and co-opt the Shi'ite-led Hezbollah into the political
system. That would be followed by the collapse of the Ba'ath regime in Damascus,
and perhaps lead even to the downfall of the ayatollahs in Tehran.
And finally, as the Bushies envisioned it, "the road from Baghdad would
lead to Jerusalem." That is, the dramatic explosion of freedom in the Arab
world would make it more likely that the Palestinians would move ahead to establish
their own independent state and conclude a peace accord with Israel. In the
first stage in that process, the Palestinians would hold a free election that
would bring to power a moderate and peace-oriented leadership.
More than three years after the inauguration of President Bush's project to
remake the Middle East, it's becoming clear that the new Iraq did become, indeed,
a model for the entire Middle East, a model of sectarian violence, religious
extremism, and growing anti-American and anti-Western sentiments.
If anything, as the recent developments in the
region are demonstrating, Bush's policies have made the Middle East safer –
not for democracy but for ethnic and religious strife. His policies have helped
to shift the balance of power in the region in the direction of Iran and Shi'ite
and Sunni radicals. What Iraq seems to be exporting to the Middle East is war
and instability, a lot of it.
Just this week in Iraq, Arab-Shi'ites and Arab-Sunnis were massacring each
other in several parts of the country, which is in the process of degenerating
into a civil war that could split it into Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish mini-states.
In Baghdad, the secular regime of Saddam has been replaced through an open election
by a coalition of Shi'ite religious parties (with links to the ruling Shi'ites
in Iran) that have taken steps to limit the rights of women and religious minorities.
The main beneficiaries of these developments have been Iran's religious Shi'ite
rulers, who have strengthened their influence in Iraq and are encouraging radical
Shi'ite groups in the so-called Shi'ite Triangle stretching from the Persian
Gulf to the Levant – including Hezbollah in Lebanon – to reassert their power
and challenge the ruling (pro-American) Arab-Sunni governments there.
And in Iran itself, instead of the Democratic Spring that the neocons had predicted,
the ayatollahs have actually strengthened their hold over power, and a virulent
anti-American (and anti-Israeli) figure was elected president through a mostly
In Lebanon, U.S. pressure forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops that were
invited by the Arab League to bring stability into that country in the aftermath
of the civil war and the Israeli occupation in early 1982 (which also helped
give birth to Hezbollah). Then the Americans celebrated the sectarian parliamentary
election that helped increase the political power of Hezbollah and brought it
into the government.
Hence, Hezbollah gained more power and representation, while a weak central
government didn't have the power to disarm its militias that continue to dominate
southern Lebanon and the border with Israel.
And the road from Baghdad didn't lead to Jerusalem. The Bush administration
has failed to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and has increased
U.S. backing for Israel. At the same time, the Americans, resisting advice from
Israelis and moderate Palestinians, insisted on holding free elections in the
West Bank that led to the victory of Hamas, an anti-Israeli, anti-American,
radical Sunni group that is opposed to holding peace negotiations with Israel.
Hamas is also an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which aims at replacing
the current regimes in Egypt and Jordan with anti-American religious parties.
Israel and the United States refused to talk with the new Hamas government and
took steps to strangle the economy of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
So on one level, on the "democratic"
side of the democratic empire in the Middle East, the Bush administration launched
a revolutionary process that has brought to power and played into the hands
of the more radical, anti-American players in the region: Iran and its alliance
of Shi'ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Hamas (Muslim Brotherhood)
in Palestine, and by extension, the rest of the Arab-Sunni world.
On another level, on the "imperial" side of the democratic empire
in the Middle East, the Americans moved aggressively to strengthen their hegemony
in the region directly (Iraq), indirectly (Lebanon), and through proxies (Palestine).
They attempted to build up an international coalition to contain and isolate
Iran and force it to give up its ambition to develop nuclear capability, and
adopted a similarly punitive approach against Damascus while trying to oust
Hamas from power.
Was it surprising, therefore, that this mishmash of idealistic democracy-promotion
crusades in the Middle East and a unipolar approach aimed at establishing U.S.
hegemony in the region ended up producing an ad-hoc, informal coalition of anti-American
players, who were emboldened thanks to Washington's policies and who are now
trying to challenge U.S. power?
Iran, whose leaders sense that it is gradually becoming a regional power, and
an isolated and angry Syrian regime decided to utilize their proxies, Hezbollah
and Hamas, to deliver an indirect blow to American power by taking aggressive
moves against an American proxy, Israel.
Indeed, it is in that geopolitical and regional context that one should focus
on the killing and kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers on Israel's borders with
Gaza and Lebanon. The goal of this action was to demonstrate that against the
backdrop of the U.S. quagmire in Iraq and the increasing influence of Iran,
Washington would find it difficult to maintain the status quo in the region.
If the Americans decide to get involved in the current fighting in the Holy
Land and Lebanon, they wil be drawn into another military front in the Middle
East, where as in Iraq, they wil be embroiled in more bloody ethnic and religious
clashes, helping to accentuate the claim that a U.S.-Israel axis wants to control
the region and is at war with Islam.
Or if the Americans refuse to intervene, the continuing fighting and the televised
images of Muslims being killed by the U.S. and Israel in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon,
and Afghanistan will play into the hands of the emerging radical forces and
erode the foundation of U.S. hegemony in the region.
In any case, as Tehran and Damascus see it, the Americans will have no choice
but to deal with Iran and Syria directly – or indirectly through the United
Nations – in order to achieve an end to the hostilities. These governments,
and the non-government entities allied with them, are now in an improved bargaining
position vis-à-vis Washington and will be able to extract concessions
from it on various issues – Syria in Lebanon and Iran over nuclear development.
The Bush administration is hoping that Israeli military power will succeed
in defeating Hezbollah and Hamas, and as a result, the Americans will be in
a position to counterbalance Iran's growing power.
But it's not clear how the Israelis could actually defeat Hamas and Hezbollah,
short of re-invading southern Lebanon and Gaza and finding themselves once again
engaged in never ending, bloody warfare with guerilla forces, not unlike what
is happening now to the Americans in Iraq.
As a result, radical Shi'ite and Sunni forces will be in a better position
to stir up the Arab masses against the pro-American old regimes in the region.
That explains why the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the Saudis seem to be backing
Washington's efforts to disarm Hezbollah.
But here is the catch: The Shi'ites constitute today at least 40 percent of
the population of Lebanon, and any attempt to destroy the military infrastructure
of Hezbollah could ignite a civil war in Lebanon.
Perhaps then the Americans would have no choice but to invite the Ba'athists
in Syria to impose order in Lebanon. Indeed, they might use that occasion to
ask Saddam Hussein to do the same in Iraq.
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