The Middle East is burning. From Baghdad to Beirut, car bombs, suicide attacks, air strikes and a grim tally of civilian deaths are the new currency of daily life.
The extremist and rejectionist machinations of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah are partly to blame. But so is an American administration that thought it could transform the Middle East overnight, using regime change in Iraq to jump start rapid democratization throughout the region.
Instead, Washington’s ideological hubris and practical incompetence has succeeded only in setting the region ablaze, awakening extremist and militant voices.
The toppling of Saddam Hussein was intended to send shock waves across the Arab world, intimidating the region’s brittle tyrannies while encouraging the spontaneous civic movements that have brought democracy to much of post-Communist Europe. In Iraq itself, democrats were to replace a brutal autocrat, providing a model for the region.
Precisely the opposite has happened. The war has not only engulfed Iraq in violence and made the country a magnet for jihadists, but it has also awakened sectarian tensions that are spreading beyond Iraq’s borders. From Saudi Arabia to Lebanon, Shiites and Sunnis are cautiously eyeing each other, heading for a mounting rivalry that has already helped plunge Lebanon into chaos.
From its strategic outpost in Iraq, the United States was to have hemmed in Iran and Syria. Instead, Iran is enjoying an unprecedented bout of muscularity, its Shiite allies now having gained the upper hand in neighboring Iraq. Syria continues to turn a blind eye as militants transit its territory to join the fight in Iraq. And Damascus has now teamed up with Tehran to aid and abet the alliance between Hamas and Hezbollah.
Far from taming the region’s politics, Washington’s policies have succeeding in putting a truculent Iran in command of the Islamic street. In Tehran, a dogmatic leadership imbued with messianic aims is both behind Hezbollah’s forays and capitalizing on them to establish itself as the vanguard of political Islam. A defiant Iran is leading the Shiite masses once more abandoned by their corrupt and illegitimate leaders.
Again, it did not have to come to this. The reformists formerly in power in Tehran sought moderation at home and peace abroad, but were ignored by Washington. Had the Bush administration been more forthcoming, and taken advantage of the bilateral cooperation that emerged amid the war in Afghanistan, it could have empowered the reformers.
The Bush administration has done no better on the Palestinian-Israeli front. Preoccupied with Iraq, Washington has effectively disengaged from the peace process. The Bush team not only abandoned Bill Clinton’s diplomatic efforts, but also derided them as naïve and ineffectual. But for all its faults, Clinton’s diplomacy sustained a process of reconciliation that kept an uneasy peace. Since the inception of Israel in 1948, every decade has been plagued by an Arab-Israeli war—except the 1990s.
In contrast, Bush’s disengagement has only led to the radicalization of Palestinian politics. Even major Israeli concessions, such as withdrawal from Gaza, are unable to quell the extremist fervor when they take place absent the cover of consensual diplomacy.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11th tragedies, the guardians of the American imperium perceived it all to be so easy. A political culture that had sanctified suicide bombings and militant ideologies was to be remolded by America’s power. The war in Iraq was to be the key to solving the Arab predicament.
The Bush administration may well be seeking the right end in the Middle East—the pacification of the region through economic and political liberalization.
But we already have ample proof that it has chosen the wrong means. Its errant attempt to impose democracy through force has backfired, only stirring up a hornet’s nest and risking a region-wide crisis.
Iraq lies in ruins, Islamist forces are strengthening, and the Palestine-Israel conflict threatens to become a full-scale war. Even more ominously, the Middle East is being polarized along sectarian lines, empowering an Iran with nuclear ambitions. The mistakes of the Bush administration are coming home to roost.
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