US sees opportunity to transform Middle East
Buoyed by the experience in Afghanistan and harking back as far as post-World War II Japan and Germany, Bush
administration officials are expressing growing confidence that they can remake the face of the entire Middle East if
Saddam Hussein is overthrown -- a notion derided by critics as dangerously naive.
With an eye toward Jan. 27, when a report by United Nations weapons inspectors could provide the trigger for a US-led war to topple the Iraqi dictator, White House officials contend that a victory in Iraq could accomplish much more than the stated goal of simply removing the threat of Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction.
An easing of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a lessening of the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism and the gradual
spread of democracy throughout a region dominated by despots are among the beneficial by-products of a successful
Iraq invasion foreseen by administration officials and their neo-conservative political supporters.
"If we succeed, as we are determined to, we would achieve a great deal," Zalmay Khalilzad, the president's special envoy for Afghanistan and Iraq, told a Washington audience recently. "We would eliminate the (weapons of mass destruction) threat from Iraq. We would decrease the threat that Iraq poses to regional peace and stability. And in transforming Iraq, we would take a significant step in the direction of the longer-term need to transform this functional region as a whole."
Yet such forecasts provoke withering scorn from some experts with long experience in the Middle East, who insist that
an American invasion of Iraq is equally as likely to lead to the break-up of the country, greater regional
instability and more anti-American terrorism.
"I favour regime change. But I can tell you that I have nothing but contempt for people who say it will be really easy or that it's going to miraculously solve all these other problems," said David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute and a senior State Department official during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. "To say that it will inevitably lead to democratic reforms throughout the Arab world and Iran or that it will lead to Arab-Israeli peace is just simplistic."
Central to the arguments of both sides is the question of whether a viable democracy can be created in an Iraq freed
from decades of Hussein's ruthless dictatorship. Bush administration officials believe that the high levels of
education in Iraq, the equality of women in the society, the existence of a middle class and the ancient roots of
Iraqi civilization together make the country of 23 mm particularly fertile ground for the emergence of
"Plus, since you already have the ready engine of Iraqi economic rebirth in the form of its oil reserves, the idea is that maybe we have, for the first time in the Middle East, a ready recipe for creating a democracy from scratch," said one State Department expert on the region.
The optimism of administration officials is further fuelled by the experience in northern Iraq. There, under the
protection of American and British warplanes patrolling a no-fly zone against Hussein's forces, two formerly feuding
Kurdish political parties largely have buried their differences and fashioned a fledgling democracy and market
economy in their autonomous region.
But critics take a much dimmer view. They note that Iraq's fractious history is soaked in the blood of hostilities between its three main population groups: the Kurds in the north, who many fear might seize on Hussein's fall to declare their own independent state; the majority Shiite Muslims in the south, who have long been victimized by ruling regimes in Baghdad; and the Sunni Muslims in the centre, who have historically held the reins of power.
"Iraq is a country that has not the faintest idea of what democracy is and never practiced it," said Youssef Ibrahim, a Mideast expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The moment we remove Saddam Hussein, I assure you the first thing that will happen will be a huge amount of bloodletting and account settlement."
The White House believes it can prevent such score-settling by quickly shifting a US invasion force into a policing
mode, once Hussein and his loyalists are routed. Pentagon plans reminiscent of the US experience in post-World War II
Japan anticipate an American military governor for Iraq, but officials hope to transition to an interim Iraqi
leadership within a matter of months, followed by the drafting of a new constitution and national elections.
Mindful that an extended American occupation of Iraq and its vast oilfields could fuel Islamic extremism and anti-Americanism throughout the Arab world, administration officials have repeatedly stressed that their intentions are benevolent. In fact, they expect to see the scenes of jubilation that washed across Afghanistan after its liberation from the Taliban to be replayed in a free Iraq -- and that success with democracy there will spread, as it has in the smaller Persian Gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.
The biggest payoff could come in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, officials predict. That's because Hussein long has
tried to position himself as a moral leader of the anti-Israel rejectionist camp, firing Scud missiles at Israel
during the 1991 gulf war and, in recent years, offering $ 25,000 bounties to the families of Palestinian suicide
"Iraq is a threat to Israel and the Palestinians have embraced Iraq because of it," said the State Department official. "If you remove that, you not only remove the sense of siege that Israelis have felt, but also an irritant that some Palestinians have exploited." "It's simply obvious that it will be a better climate, a more benign climate, when Saddam is gone," said Richard Perle, a Pentagon adviser and leading advocate of US military action to topple Hussein.
But that argument is not at all obvious to Egypt's ambassador to Washington, whose nation has pressed the Bush
administration not to take on Iraq before progress is made on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"How removing Saddam Hussein will cause the present Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority to change their positions, I don't understand," said the ambassador, Nabil Fahmy. "What is more probable is you will have more volatility in the Mideast if you don't solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and then you add to it another one in Iraq at the same time. If we succeed, as we are determined to, we would achieve a great deal.... And in transforming Iraq, we would take a significant step in the direction of the longer-term need to transform this functional region as a whole."