With its war in Iraq and its talk of promoting democracy, the Bush Administration has begun to transform the Middle East–but not always in ways it may have intended. We have asked four leading experts on the Middle East to offer their assessments of the consequences of the Administration’s policies for the region and for America’s standing within it. The four are: Helena Cobban, who writes the weblog JustWorldNews and is a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor and Al-Hayat (London); Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, who writes the weblog Informed Comment; Nir Rosen, a fellow at the New America Foundation, who is completing a book on the Iraq War; and Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. –The Editors
Wars often have unintended consequences. How has the Iraq War affected the political landscape of the region and America’s standing therein?
: The war has obviously pushed more people in the region further into the anti-American camp. This includes many of the area’s democrats and moderates–the kind of people who would previously have been prepared to give Washington a chance. It has also undermined the longer-term strategic objectives the Bush Administration seems to have had in mind. There is enough documentary evidence to conclude that Bush and Cheney wanted to establish a solidly pro-US regime in Iraq that would provide basing rights for the US military for decades to come. That position would then enable Washington to threaten military action against both Iran and Syria. But as a result of the insurgency, Washington lacks the capability to utter a credible threat against Iran or Syria–other than possibly some small-scale “needling” operations.
: Helena is correct that the Iraq War has propelled negative feelings toward the United States–not just in the immediate region but throughout the Muslim world. Between the summer of 2002 and spring of 2003, the number of Indonesians who viewed the US favorably fell from 61 percent to 15 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Although Muslims already faulted the United States for lack of evenhandedness on the Arab-Israeli dispute, in recent years their estimation of the US has plummeted. According to Zogby, from summer 2002 to summer 2004, those who viewed the US favorably in Egypt fell from 15 to 2 percent. And respondents generally believed that Iraqis were worse off under American occupation.
Another consequence of the war has been that more Sunnis in Iraq and elsewhere are turning away from Arab nationalism, which has been discredited, to Salafi revivalism, a very conservative form of Islam. Although most Salafis are “quietists,” in that they do not enter into ordinary politics, they are also the recruitment pool for radical groups. It has also strengthened Iran’s position in the region. In 1982 Ayatollah Khomeini created the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq for Shiite expatriate groups, whose members included Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the current SCIRI leader, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq’s current Prime Minister. Khomeini dreamed of putting them in power in Baghdad. Bush and Rumsfeld have fulfilled that dream.
: Instead of creating a democracy, we have replaced one dictatorship with another that is growing increasingly abusive and that is settling scores with the Sunni class. That and the chaos the war has created have given the dictatorships of the region a powerful argument against regime change, since nobody wants to live in Iraq, and it is better to have any government than to live in the hell that Iraq has become. Equally worrying, Iraq has convinced many Muslims around the world that the United States, and perhaps the West, is their enemy. It has made the “clash of civilizations,” a previously absurd and baseless theory, closer to a reality. It has united Islamist movements around the world with a common bond of feeling oppressed at the hands of the United States and its allies. In Falluja, I found men fighting in honor of slain Palestinian leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin. In Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda fighters who killed foreign workers have named their group after Falluja. And even in Mogadishu, Somalia, there are now shops named in honor of Hamas and Falluja.