Last Updated: Mon Nov 01, 2010 20:26 pm (KSA) 17:26 pm (GMT)

Bush’s new Middle East

Shlomo Ben-Ami

President George W. Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished” in Iraq five years ago was as hubristic as his current assessment that the “surge” has “delivered a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror” is a fantasy.

The Iraq adventure is not only the longest and most expensive war in America’s history - Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz has advanced a staggering estimate of $3 trillion - but is also the least conclusive.

The war has pulverised Iraqi society, dissolving it into an ethno-sectarian patchwork. The “surge” will end sooner or later, and the Iraqis, crippled by violence and corruption, will still be incapable of uniting their polity and, with their military still unable to take over from the Americans, jihadi and inter-ethnic violence is bound to erupt again. As Iraqi Colonel Omar Ali, the Iraqi battalion commander in Mosul, the main focus of the insurgency today, recently put it: “Without the Americans, it would be impossible for us to control Iraq.”

Wars, as Winston Churchill defined them, are always “a catalogue of blunders”. History’s judgement of the Iraq war will therefore certainly dwell more on whether it has accomplished its strategic objectives of “reconstructing” a highly dysfunctional Middle East in America’s democratic image and consolidating America’s hegemonic position in the region than on its price in blood and money.

Strategically, the war was an utter failure. A clear case of imperial overstretch, the war strained America’s military, undermined the America’s moral standing worldwide and its reputation in the Middle East, severely threatened its economy, and showed to both friends and foes the limits of American power.

The most serious unintended consequence of the war is the emergence of a powerful Shiite challenge to the West’s Sunni allies in the Middle East. America’s destruction of Iraq as a regional power handed hegemony in the Gulf - whose centrality to Western interests cannot be overstated - to Iran’s Shiite Islamist regime on a silver platter.

On the rubble of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the Americans helped create in Iraq the first Shiite-dominated Arab state, which may well become subservient to Iran’s regional ambitions - a calamity of historic dimensions for America’s Sunni allies. President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s recent state visit to Iraq conveyed to the Americans an unequivocal message: the prospects of the United States ever reaching a modicum of stability in Iraq have become dependent on Iran-aligned forces.

America’s difficulties in Iraq and beyond contributed decisively to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Iranians now see themselves as immune from an American attack on their nuclear installations, for America’s troubles in Iraq and the growing opposition to the war in the US are a signal to them that America’s strategy of preemptive wars has failed.

But, however radical the Iranian regime might be, it is not suicidal. Hence, the threat of a nuclear Iran might consist less in its propensity to start a nuclear war with Israel than in its capacity to project its regional power effectively. A nuclear Iran might even threaten America’s capacity to project conventional military force in the Gulf in times of crisis. Nor should the possibility be ruled out that Iran might be tempted to back its regional ambitions by supplying nuclear material to proxy terrorist groups.

If anything, America’s debacle in Iraq has only emboldened the challengers of the status quo in the region. That has also been the result of Bush’s ill-conceived democracy crusade in the Arab world. Bush discovered to his dismay that any exercise in Arab democracy is bound to usher in anti-Western Islamists, be it the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Shiite parties in Iraq or Hamas in Palestine.

The US eventually had to abandon its fantasies about Western-style Arab democracy, but it ironically left the Iranians carrying the torch of democracy in the region. After all, Iran was quick to recognise that free elections are the safest way to undermine the Middle East’s pro-American regimes.

The Iraq war also meant that America ignored the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The chances that the Bush administration might be able to rally America’s Sunni “moderate” allies in the region to help salvage an Israeli-Palestinian peace are now hostage to an Iranian-led regional axis that includes Hamas, Hizbollah, and Syria. All are united in their rejection of a Pax Americana in the Middle East, and all have so far shown remarkable resilience in ignoring America’s pre-conditions for a dialogue.

America’s inability to inspire the peoples of the Middle East, some ruled by US-backed autocracies, is not exactly stunning news. What is news is that American power might also be losing its ability to intimidate them.


* Published in THE JORDAN TIMES on April 6, 2008. The writer, a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace, is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy”. © Project Syndicate, 2008. www.project-syndicate.org.

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