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Beyond Baghdad


Tomorrow Baghdad. The next day -- Damascus?

Foreign policy analysts are saying regime change in Iraq is only the first step in a grander, arguably grandiose, plan on the part of some U.S. policymakers to remake the map of the Middle East. The goal is U.S. hegemony in the region and indeed the world. Included in the agenda are controlling other nations’ access to oil and frightening Arab nations and the Palestinians into capitulating to U.S. and Israeli demands in the Middle East.

In an essay called “The Push for War,” originally published in The London Review of Books, Anatol Lieven, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that “the basic and generally agreed plan is unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority, and this has been consistently advocated and worked on by the group of intellectuals close to Dick Cheney and Richard Perle since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.”

While the immediate goal of an invasion of Iraq is to destroy weapons of mass destruction, Lieven contends there is little real fear that Saddam Hussein will give those weapons to terrorists. Rather, the administration hopes to destroy the Sunni-dominated nationalist state of Iraq, which has existed since Iraq was founded, and replace it with a “democracy,” one presumably modeled on Afghanistan’s “ramshackle coalition of ethnic groups and warlords, utterly dependent on U.S. military power and utterly subservient to U.S. [and Israeli] wishes,” Lieven wrote.

Lieven is not alone in his chilling views of an administration heavily influenced by radical nationalists ready to risk the possibility of a conflagration in the Middle East and a worldwide economic depression should their gamble fail.

Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East expert at the Institute for Policy Studies, said a U.S. invasion of Iraq has little to do with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

“It has to do with oil and to do with empire -- getting control of Iraq’s enormous oil resources,” Bennis said. “That’s not just about importing oil to the United States. We already do that. The issue is control, undermining OPEC, and controlling access to oil for Germany, Japan and the rest of Europe. This would give the United States tremendous political and economic clout in the rest of the world. Iraq is key, particularly if instability in Saudi Arabia grows. They’re looking to have a backup if they lose access to Saudi Arabia.”

Foreign policy experts say there is growing unease about the stability of Saudi Arabia and a growing readiness to regard Saudi Arabia as an enemy state. Already some Washington think tanks are circulating the idea of dismantling the Saudi Arabian state and placing its oil fields under U.S. control should Saudi Arabia prove recalcitrant to U.S. wishes after Saddam Hussein’s regime is overthrown. Iran is another potential target of U.S. intervention. The only other country besides Iraq with sufficient population, land, and oil and water resources to become a regional power in the Middle East, Iran is for these very reasons a source of concern to U.S. foreign policymakers.

Bennis said she believes a decision to invade Iraq has not yet been made, but will have little to do with what U.N. arms inspectors find or do not find in Iraq.

“It’s very much an ideologically driven war drive,” said Bennis. The aim, she said, is to prove “the legitimacy of unilateralism” and to establish that U.S. power cannot be challenged.

William Pfaff, a veteran foreign affairs correspondent now with The International Herald Tribune, agrees. An essay Pfaff wrote for Commonweal in May describes a faction of key policymakers within the Bush administration as intoxicated by national messianism -- the belief that America’s destiny is to lead the way forward for humanity.

“It’s been explicitly said that it’s time for America to affirm its hegemony in the world. This operates in a framework of expectations that I think are delusory -- Wilsonian expectations that the world is waiting for the U.S. to confer on backward societies the benefits of capitalism and American-style democracy,” Pfaff said in an interview with NCR.

‘Nightmarish scenario’

“There’s talk of splitting up Saudi Arabia. We’ll put in our own protégés in the part that has the oil. Israel will be our gendarmerie in the region. It becomes a nightmarish scenario,” Pfaff said.

Pfaff charges that the United States has become the major contributor to world instability today, putting into effect policies that are destructive of the existing framework of international law and arms control and increasingly emphasizing military solutions rather than international cooperation. Indeed, Pfaff argues that the current strategic doctrine of, in the Pentagon’s phrase, “full-spectrum dominance” is an invitation to nuclear proliferation, giving governments without nuclear weapons cause to consider acquiring them to deter attack from the United States.

Pfaff said different lobbies have pressed for war with Iraq. The Israelis have been promoting a U.S. attack on Iraq, which is a greater threat to Israel than it is to the United States. Oil interests within the administration as well as outside it have also pushed for securing oil supplies for American companies. But Pfaff said the larger motive for war with Iraq is ideological. “A group of Americans, a group of intellectuals and policy specialists, for a dozen years or more, has been promoting the aggressive use of American power to reorder the Middle East,” Pfaff said.

Writing in conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard and Commentary and spelled out in certain national security documents, neoconservatives such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Pentagon adviser Richard Perle and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol have outlined their vision of a new American order, one that looks suspiciously like the imperialist schemes of a hundred years ago.

“The debate we should be having parallels 100 years ago when the United States invaded the Philippines,” said Stephen Zunes, an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and founding director of The Institute for a New Middle East Policy. Zunes said the fear, anger and nationalism created by the attacks of Sept. 11 have enabled hardliners within the administration to pursue policies that would otherwise be untenable in the eyes of most Americans.

“Iran could be next. Syria. North Korea. Cuba. That’s what the axis of evil was all about -- to prepare for this kind of thing,” Zunes said, referring to President Bush’s State of the Union speech in which he described Iraq, North Korea and Iran as belonging to an “axis of evil.”

The risks of the new strategy, as different experts point out, are enormous: Increased anti-American hostility in the region and a rise in terrorism and chaos across the Arab world. Even if the United States stops with regime change in Iraq and does not move on to other Middle Eastern countries, as some think likely, the administration is taking on a tall order.

Paul Sullivan, a professor of economics at National Defense University, the top senior service school within the Department of Defense, points out that rebuilding Iraqi society could be a lengthy and costly project.

“It could cost upwards of $100 billion and possibly more,” Sullivan said. “The Iraqi economy is in pretty sick order. If you really want to build a democracy and a viable economy, you’d have to connect the north, south and center again. You’ll have to rebuild an education system that has been falling behind since 1989. The medical system is in very poor shape for all but the elite. A rule of law is missing. Infrastructure will have to be rebuilt if there is a war. It’s an enormous, daunting task.”

To do a good job, Sullivan said that American forces might have to be stationed in Iraq for up to a decade or more. Careful to clarify that he speaks for himself, not for the National Defense University, Sullivan said the Middle East is far more volatile now than it was in 1991, the last time the United States sent troops to Iraq. The most important source of volatility is the Al-Aqsa intifada in the Occupied Territories, Sullivan said, but there are significant economic grievances as well. Real incomes are in decline. Unemployment in the region is ranging from 20 to 25 percent.

“What we need in the region first of all is a miracle. Then what is needed in the region is a solution to the crisis in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel,” Sullivan said. “The Arabs see on their TV sets, and hear on their radios, everyday about the instability and violence in the West Bank and Gaza. To hit the region with another event would just inflame the Arab world still more and could create something akin to a perfect storm where a confluence of many regional, national, ethnic and religious tensions would be magnified.”

Lip service to democracy

Publicly, neoconservatives have spoken of their desire to “democratize” the region. Many may be sincere, but according to Lieven at least some of them concede privately that democratization is unlikely. The neoconservatives’ effort to remake the Middle East “is about weakening, destroying and intimidating unreliable states. These people also have a very deep hostility to most of the Arab and Muslim world,” Lieven said.

Analysts point out that there are different factions within any presidential administration, and particularly this one with its well-publicized split between the more multilateralist State Department and the radical nationalists congregated around Donald Rumsfeld in the Defense Department and Vice President Cheney in the White House.

“These larger strategic fantasies that the neoconservatives of the Bush administration come up with are not necessarily representative of the rest of the administration. They see Iraq as a staging area for the Mideast: The United States and Israel can co-manage a region that is unstable and chronically at odds with American interests. It’s the same conservative pie in the sky that has been talked about in conservative circles for years,” said Michael Donovan, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a nonprofit organization founded by senior U.S. military officers to monitor global security issues.

Even among those analysts who take the neoconservative talk of democratizing the region at face value, there is skepticism about the viability of the immediate goals put forward by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration as well as the longer-term strategy.

“I don’t think we appreciate how difficult it is to impose democracy out of a barrel of a U.S. gun,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College.

Gerges said Iraq’s blood-soaked political history since 1938 should make U.S. policymakers wary of the prospects of swiftly or easily establishing a political order there. “How do you democraticize a fractious state that has been involved in a prolonged ethnic, tribal and political conflict? Iraqi society is deeply scarred, and the foundations of trust that are needed to solidify democracy are frayed to the breaking point,” Gerges said.

While sympathetic with the theoretical goal of bringing democracy to Iraq, Gerges said he fears a U.S. move to topple the existing government could trigger Iraq’s descent into chaos, subverting its Gulf neighbors in the process, particularly Kuwait, Jordan and Saudia Arabia. U.S. action could extend the pool of recruits for violent jihad elements throughout the Middle East. “I would like to argue that our approach toward Iraq is unwittingly playing into the hands of al Qaeda and other fringe movements in the region,” said Gerges.

Already, many in the Middle East and Europe are cynical about U.S. motives in attacking Iraq. The dominant perspective in the Arab world today is that the war on Iraq is an effort by U.S. policymakers to subjugate Arabs and Muslims and become the arbiters of their destiny and resources, particularly oil, Gerges said.

Even among advocates of U.S.-initiated regime change, there is skepticism about whether the administration’s rhetoric about democratizing the region is anything more. In a Nov. 26 opinion piece in The New York Times, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the conservative think tank The American Enterprise Institute, challenged arguments that an invasion of Iraq could increase instability across the region. “Most regimes are too stable, strong and clever,” Gerecht wrote. But Gerecht, mentioned this year in a New Yorker article as a promoter of regime change in Iran and Syria as well as Iraq, also questions the strength of American commitment to democracy in the region. He notes that the administration has been vague about its aspirations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein, which he said may indicate “that while promotion of democracy is high on the administration’s list of ideals, it is low on the list of priorities.”

Analysts said it’s become clear that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is linked to every other conflict in the Middle East. But confronting the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States in ways that would be necessary to bring any chance of peace is a challenge that even those who understand the need for a political solution shrink from undertaking. That is particularly true when, according to Lieven, the Republican Party sees a clear political advantage to wooing the Jewish vote away from its traditional home in the Democratic Party by demonstrating not only support for Israel but commitment to Israel’s regional ambitions.

Policy experts called the Bush administration’s decision to write off peace negotiations for the time being as unfortunate, or worse.

“One is dumbfounded by the administration’s unwillingness to invest adequate political capital in trying to nudge Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table,” said Gerges. “The focus should be on trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What terrifies me is that there are some hardliners in the administration who advance the thesis that the road to a Palestinian-Israeli settlement goes through Baghdad. The Palestinian issue takes precedence over that of Iraq. By reversing priorities, we are endangering our vital interests and playing into the hands of terrorists.”

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

Related Web sites
American Enterprise Institute

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Center for Defense Information

Institute for Policy Studies

U.S. Department of Defense

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002