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Unintended Consequences | The Nation

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Unintended Consequences

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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

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Wars often have unintended consequences. How has the Iraq War affected the political landscape of the region and America's standing therein?

Cobban

: 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.

Cole

: 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.

Rosen

: 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.

Telhami

: No one in Washington would have imagined that with all the human and financial costs of the war, the United States would find itself supporting a government headed by an Islamist, Mr. Jaafari, whose power is dependent on the blessing of a most influential clergyman, Ayatollah Sistani--a government that has close ties to Iran and that would conclude a military agreement with Tehran for the training of Iraqi forces, even as nearly 140,000 US troops remained on Iraqi soil. Nor would they have imagined the broader strategic consequences of the war to which Helena alluded: that Iraq would become the new breeding ground for Al Qaeda and for those who share its aims and methods; that in the Middle East and in much of the world, the United States would be perceived to be weaker in the short term than it was before the war; that its leverage vis-à-vis states like Iran and North Korea would have been reduced because US forces are stretched too thin in Iraq; and that because of the difficulties in Iraq, the United States would need others in the international community more, including governments it is trying to influence, such as those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Much of the American political class remains obsessed with Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Yet even with the Administration's gift of the invasion of Iraq and the terrorism it has helped generate, it is not clear how much ground, if any, bin Ladenism has gained in the region since 9/11. How serious is the threat today?

Cole

: Political Islam remains important, but radical fundamentalism devoted to terrorism against the US is widely in decline, with the single exception of US-dominated Iraq. One must distinguish Muslim political parties like Dawa in Iraq or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which will peacefully contest elections, from radical Sunni fundamentalist groups like Al Qaeda or Algeria's Armed Islamic Group. The fundamentalist movements that aimed at violently seizing power were strongest in the 1990s in Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Gaza, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Everywhere they have been largely defeated. The Algerian civil war of the 1990s left the secular-leaning government victorious over the Armed Islamic Group. The Mubarak regime in Egypt jailed some 30,000 radicals and killed 1,500 in running street battles, devastating them. The military government in Sudan broke with Hassan Turabi and his radical fundamentalists. Saudi Arabia, after long underestimating the danger, has now moved effectively against Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda never had significant popularity in most of Afghanistan and is in great disarray.

Rosen

: The threat today is more serious than it was before the war in Iraq but hardly the principal challenge some say it is. Jihadi movements in different countries are now more likely to identify with one another, because they feel commonly persecuted. But if the US ceased its attacks on Muslim populations and was seen as a more just international actor, most movements would lose much of their recruiting base. Al Qaeda initially sought to expel the US from Saudi Arabia, and now it has been able to make the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan its cause as well. Though there are elements in the jihadi universe who are motivated purely by hate and the desire for war, the principal cause of jihadi extremism is American policy in the Muslim world.

Telhami

: I believe that Al Qaeda and its allies remain a major threat. While it cares about Islamic issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iraq, it is hard to imagine that any realistic and fair outcome of these issues would satisfy its aspirations. In that sense the conflict with this group is zero-sum, and that makes it very dangerous.

But the mistake made in the approach to terrorism is not in characterizing Al Qaeda. It is in realizing that the fight against Al Qaeda requires a strategy toward the majority of Muslims who are not allies of Al Qaeda but who have come to dislike the United States even more than they fear Al Qaeda. This is the danger, and one can see it from public opinion surveys I have been conducting (with Zogby International) in a number of Arab countries. Particularly troubling is the public's view of American intentions. That the vast majorities think the primary US objectives in Iraq are controlling oil and helping Israel is not new. What is distressing is that majorities now add to oil and Israel the belief that the US intention is "to weaken the Muslim world." This may be in part responsible for the rise of what I call "Islamic nationalism." In 2004 "Islamic identity" trumped "Arab identity" and identification with the state in four of the six countries I surveyed. This does not appear to be as much a rise in puritanical religious belief as it is in Islamic nationalism. For example, when asked if they supported women working outside the house, majorities in every single country stated that they supported women working either always or when economically needed. When asked whom among world leaders they admired most, none of the religious fundamentalists made the top three. In fact, the top-two vote getters were the late pan-Arab Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and French President Jacques Chirac, most probably because of their perceived defiance of the United States.

But unfortunately, Osama bin Laden still has his supporters and appears on the list of top five in several countries. The real danger these findings suggest is not only in bin Laden's ability to recruit but also in reducing the incentive for others to fight him. If the war on bin Laden is perceived to be primarily a war between the United States and Al Qaeda, even those who reject Al Qaeda's ways may not be rooting for the US--let alone be willing to actively cooperate with us.

Cobban

: There has been, in my opinion, a considerable hyping of the "terrorist threat" in order to keep Americans in a state of fearfulness. Accusing one's political opponents of being "terrorists" whose claims and movements "we" in the "civilized world" cannot therefore afford to engage politically is an old rhetorical device used to uneven effect by numerous colonial regimes over the decades. In apartheid South Africa, let's remember, the regime used its claim that the ANC was merely a bunch of "terrs" (as they called them) to justify its policies of refusing to talk to the ANC and of conducting an aggressive war against it and its supporters. But finally, after three decades, reason prevailed, and the bosses of apartheid decided that just possibly it might be worthwhile to negotiate with the ANC--even as the ANC continued attacks on both white and black civilians within South Africa.

We need to be able to confront today's anti-"terrorist" prop-aganda with this history in mind. We need to stand on the solid principle that all politically motivated actions that harm noncombatants--whether undertaken by governments, militias or shadowy underground networks--are equally deplorable. We need to shift the discourse from one of "terrorism/antiterrorism" to one of strict respect by all sides for international humanitarian law. In that way, the claims raised by groups now labeled "terrorist" can be considered on their own political merits. Some of these claims have some merit and should be engaged. Some have none at all.

One of the unintended consequences of the war has been to deepen or sharpen the Shiite-Sunni divide. The establishment of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad seems to have revived fears among the Sunni elite of an Iranian-led Shiite crescent in the Middle East that would upset the political balance in their own societies. Is there a danger of larger regional conflict along sectarian lines?

Telhami

: There's no question that in Iraq today there is a Shiite-Sunni divide and that this divide is consequential for regional politics broadly, including in the Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, that have significant Shiite communities. It has to be said at the outset, however, that while the insurgency is primarily Sunni Arab, it has had some Sunni Kurdish and some Shiite elements. Even when Saddam Hussein ruled, many of his subordinates were Shiite. In fact, the majority on the fifty-five "most wanted" deck of cards were Shiite, not Sunni.

Moreover, the sectarian issue is only part of the story. The other part is a genuine strategic concern in the Arab Gulf states about Iranian power. Many in the Gulf have traditionally seen Iraq as the only state in the region capable in the long term of balancing Iranian dominance. But Iraq is not in the short term capable of balancing anyone, even if its government were Sunni. And their fear is that their strategic worries in this regard may be exacerbated by the sectarian issue: that a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq may be inclined to become Iran's friend or, even worse, client. While many of these fears are exaggerated (for one thing, Iraqi Shiites are Iraqi and Arab as much as Shiite), there is much strategic uncertainty as well as confusion in the Gulf region about the best policies to pursue in this environment.

Cole

: The war has, as King Abdullah II of Jordan pointed out rather too breathlessly, greatly strengthened the Shiites, including Iran and Hezbollah, but also smaller Gulf communities such as those in Saudi Arabia's oil region and in Bahrain. When the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and the Dawa Party, of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, won the January 30 elections, and when the religious parties swept to power in the nine southern provinces and Baghdad, Tehran gained key political allies. There is now a de facto Baghdad-Tehran axis. The current governments are now making plans for joint oil pipelines, loans, investment and cooperation in the pilgrimage trade. Many Iraqi Shiites support the Lebanese Hezbollah, which in the medium term will almost certainly benefit from the support of wealthy Iraqi Shiites. Bahraini and Saudi Shiites have become more assertive, given their new allies in Baghdad.

That said, the Shiite revival in the eastern Arab world is unlikely to result in regional wars in and of itself. But if Iraq fell into civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, the Saudis and Jordanians would certainly take the side of the Sunnis, while Iran would support the Shiites.

Rosen

: I do not believe there is a Shiite crescent in geopolitical terms for Iran to lead, because Iraq's Shiites are Iraqis first and Shiites second and do not look to Iran for leadership, although some of the current leaders have close ties to Iran. Rather, the danger lies in the sectarianism that the Iraq War has increased. In Iraq the gulf between Arabs and Turkmen on one side and the Kurds on the other is unbridgeable. Antipathy between Sunnis and Shiites is extremely virulent, and some cleansing of Sunnis from Shiite areas and Shiites from Sunni areas is inevitable. Syria is descending into sectarian conflict between Kurds and Arabs but also soon between the minority Alawis, who rule, and the majority Sunnis, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. In Lebanon the divide between Sunnis, Christians, Shiites and Druse is the widest it has been since the 1989 Taif peace accords, and radical Sunni Islam has been gaining in strength as well.

Cobban

: The US authorities have done a lot, inside Iraq, to exacerbate the differences between Shiites and Sunnis, as between ethnic Arabs and ethnic Kurds. 'Twas ever thus with colonial ventures: Divide and rule. But Arab and Islamic societies still have many resources with which to manage these divisions and to prevent them from spiraling uncontrollably into civil war. To my certain knowledge, this is the case inside Iraq, as well as at the regional level. But, of course, an embattled US colonial power will continue to try to exacerbate the sectarian divisions.

The Bush Administration is trying to place some of the blame for the insurgency in Iraq on Syria and Iran, arguing that they are not doing enough to stop foreign fighters from entering Iraq, and has even suggested that they may be aiding the insurgency. What role are Iraq's neighbors--including Saudi Arabia--playing in the Iraq War?

Telhami

: The Bush Administration's emphasis on foreign fighters is a distraction. The vast majority (more than 90 percent) of the insurgents are Iraqis. Most of the expected insurgents killed or taken into custody are Iraqis. There is no lack of skill in the methods of war among Iraqis, and we know that there are sufficient munitions that have gone missing from Iraqi stockpiles to last the insurgency for many years. So the primary threat to the US presence in Iraq today is local, not international, even if it is also true that Al Qaeda terrorists have taken root there.

Cole

: The Administration's focus on Syria is invidious, since Sunni jihadists have infiltrated Iraq from Saudi Arabia and Jordan as well as Syria, and the Syrian border is probably impossible to police effectively. That the Alawi Shiite-dominated Syrian Baath Party would be eager to see the influence of radical Sunni fundamentalism grow on its borders is not plausible. The Syrians might be more effective in policing their borders if they were not afraid that the US would overthrow them if it were not tied down in Iraq. Practically speaking, reassuring Damascus on that score while pressing it to do a better job of intercepting the jihadis would be a better policy than simple saber-rattling.

Rosen

: It is absurd to accuse Iran of supporting a Sunni anti-Shiite insurgency against the only Shiite state in the region and one whose leadership is composed of many former dissidents with ties to Iran. I would also add that many of the foreign fighters in Iraq have come from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which also supply much of the ideology of the mujahedeen in Iraq. The radical form of Islam that is encouraged in Saudi Arabia and that it supports in the Muslim world, from Bosnia to Somalia to Afghanistan, is indeed a threat both to more moderate local traditions and to world peace. Key Salafi leaders have also come from Jordan, including Zarqawi and several of his spiritual advisers who provide the theological justifications for his movement.

Cobban

: I find it rather ironic that the United States, which has no business being in Iraq, is concerned with the "interference" of Iraq's neighbors. Let's think for a moment. Which countries might have the most legitimate reasons to be concerned about the stability, well-being and general political orientation of the people of Iraq: its immediate neighbors--two of which have suffered in recent times from Iraqi aggression, and all of which have at least some populations with family and other fraternal links to Iraq--or a country 8,000 miles away, only a tiny proportion of whose citizens have any connection to Iraq at all?

Supporters of the Bush Administration have tried to claim credit for what they see as the new stirring of democracy in many Arab societies. Others argue that the Administration's Greater Middle East Initiative has not gone anywhere because of Washington's legitimacy and credibility problems.

Cobban

: The Administration's adoption of the rhetoric of democratization is welcome. But Washington continues to support--and indeed makes its own use of--the repressive apparatuses of countries like Egypt and Jordan, which are used to punish internal political opposition. Democratization and a respect for human rights are closely connected. That is why we must stand for ending the use of violence in domestic political affairs. When we see Washington make that point in public, we'll know it is starting to get serious about "democratization." For now, most reformers in Arab societies are extremely wary of being tarred with an American brush--especially as long as the US is seen, as it still is, as essentially supporting Israel's colonial policies in the West Bank, and as long as the American occupation of Iraq is seen as having led to chaos in that country.

Cole

: Bush's military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have not produced stable governments that anyone would want to copy. And both new governments have a distinctly Muslim fundamentalist coloration. The Administration's policies have actually strengthened the Iranian hard-liners while having little effect on other regimes in the region. Nothing that happened in Lebanon had anything to do with Bush or Iraq. The municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and the changes in electoral law in Egypt are purely cosmetic. It is a good thing for the US to support democracy in the region, but it has to be done wisely. The main effect of aggressive Bush Administration policy to date has been to spread instability and increase polarization.

Rosen

: The US war in Iraq has encouraged "liberation movements" in the region, who now feel that there is a superpower that can give them an edge in their internal domestic struggles. But many of these movements have adopted sectarian or ethnic identities (for example, the Syrian Brotherhood and the Kurds in Syria). At the same time, new "Chalabis" are appearing, hoping to copy Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi's success in orchestrating a war and regime change through public relations and lies. Syrian opposition figure Nizar Nayouf provided the media with documents detailing where Iraqi WMDs were allegedly being stored in Syria. And Syrian dissident Farid al-Ghadiri of the American-based Al Islah (Reform) Party had been imitating Chalabi's lobbying tactics. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is like the Iraqi Dawa Party, waiting on the sidelines and hoping for change, knowing that as soon as Syria's Baathists depart, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood will easily take over. The overall effect of these new stirrings of democracy, then, has been to increase the potential for sectarian strife in a number of countries.

Telhami

: The war itself had mostly a negative impact on democracy in the region, but the subsequent advocacy of democracy has had a more positive effect on the region's politics. In general, because the Bush Administration gave this issue such a high profile, all those seeking good relations with the US had to offer something, if only for political reasons. Even those in the region who didn't believe the Administration meant it were happy to see the public pressure: When governments in the region are under scrutiny, the likelihood of an Arab Tiananmen Square is reduced. The Lebanese could go out in large numbers to test the resolve of Syrian and Lebanese forces. Opposition in Egypt has been emboldened. All this has resulted in more stirrings than we have seen in a long time. But profound change is hard to find anywhere.

In fact, Arab governments are assuming two things: First, that the Bush Administration is using the democracy issue to get them to cooperate on strategic issues such as Iraq, the war on Al Qaeda and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; second, that the President, having made the issue a public priority, must now show some accomplishment. For this reason, their strategy is clear: Offer strategic cooperation and give enough evidence of change for the Administration to claim them as an example of success. Yet as soon as the President takes credit for a country as an example of success, they assume it will be very hard for him to move that country back to the negative column. Democracy cannot be seen to march backwards.

The liberal community seems to be divided about what to do in Iraq, in particular over the issue of an American withdrawal. What is your view?

Rosen

: Every day the American occupation of Iraq continues, the crimes inherent in such an occupation continue. More innocent Iraqis will be wounded, killed, tortured or arrested. The Iraqi resistance will continue to have ready justification for its own violence and crimes, and the Iraqi government will continue to be perceived as a weak and illegitimate collaborator. The occupying powers must therefore promulgate a timetable for an expeditious withdrawal. Such an announcement would allow for Sunni participation in the political process and convince all Arab Iraqis that America is not in Iraq seeking the country's oil or permanent bases. The majority of the Iraqi resistance would have a strong incentive to pursue negotiations and lay down their weapons, because there would be no occupation to fight. They could unite with other Iraqis in opposing foreign radical Islamic movements, which would lose both a motivating factor and a major opportunity to engage in jihad. This is not to imply that all will end well. If the Americans leave, Iraqis may end up fighting one another before responsible religious, tribal and political leaders establish order, based on the strong sense of Iraqi nationalism among both Sunni and Shiite Iraqi Arabs. Either way it will take decades for the region to recover from the ill-fated and traumatic American adventure.

Cobban

: I strongly agree that the US should withdraw its troops completely from Iraq, and as fast as is humanly possible. The troops have no right to be there, because their presence is the result of a war that was illegitimate under any reasonable reading of international law. Their presence there is doubly illegitimate because, in the postinvasion era, they have been used to buttress a US Administration inside Iraq that has disregarded the entire legal structure that regulates what is permissible during a military occupation. I am aware of the argument that a too-early US withdrawal may leave the country mired in civil war and that therefore Americans have some kind of "duty" to stay in Iraq to "make things right." I believe this argument is based on the completely false premise that the American presence has a stabilizing influence within the country. My reading of the situation there is that exactly the opposite is true.

Telhami

: I find myself torn between the fear that rapid American withdrawal could bring about further anarchy and civil war and the worry that continued American presence will reduce the incentives of the local parties to move toward a lasting arrangement. On balance, I am now of the opinion that announcing a reasonable timetable (within eighteen months) for the beginning of American withdrawal is more good than bad. If the United States is taken out of the equation, the focus may be on Iraq. Al Qaeda, which is now capitalizing on the anti-American mood and on a genuine Iraqi insurgency, would have far fewer allies in Iraq. The best course of action would be to issue a challenge to the Iraqi government and to the Sunni population: If a constitutional deal is struck that attracts the majority of Sunni leadership and elections are held in which majorities of all major communities participate, the US would commit significant foreign aid directly to the Iraqi government over a period of ten years and would announce a timetable for withdrawal of forces.

Cole

: The United States cannot resolve the problems in Iraq militarily, and its policies have made things progressively worse. The Iraqi government has no military and won't have an effective one for five to ten years. If the United States simply withdrew, Iraq might well fall into massive civil war. That war would, moreover, likely draw in the Turks, Iranians and Saudis. Consequent guerrilla sabotage of Iranian and Saudi petroleum production is not impossible and would risk deeply harming the world economy, especially the poor in the global South. The Iraq situation needs to be effectively internationalized, preferably by giving it a United Nations military command, like that in Cambodia in the early 1990s. Obviously, that step will not be taken by the Bush Administration, and it will not be easy to accomplish under any circumstances, given how badly the Administration has alienated the international community and what a mess it has made of Iraq. In the absence of internationalization, and given the great likelihood that "Iraqization" will fail miserably in the near to medium term, America faces the choice of being stuck in Iraq for many years or risking a destabilization of the Middle East and of the world energy economy.

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