HONOLULU — Last week U.S. President George W. Bush laid out his vision for the Middle East. For the most part, the text read like any other: It was a stump speech designed to drum up support for “regime change” in Iraq.
But closer study of the speech shows not only the distance that Bush has traveled since winning the presidency but also the scope of the changes the administration envisions for the volatile region. It is a breathtaking design, anticipating nothing less than the transformation and modernization of the Middle East. And therein lies extraordinary danger.
Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank that has provided key personnel in the administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush declared: “It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world — or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim — is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. . . . A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.”
Bush vowed that the United States and its allies “stand ready to help the citizens of a liberated Iraq,” delivering medicine, food and other needed supplies and assistance. He pledged that the U.S. would “remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more. America has made and kept this kind of commitment before — in the peace that followed a world war. After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments.”
The costs of action may be high — and the administration has been very reluctant to reveal what the ultimate price tag will be — but the payoff will be worth it. Bush maintains that “the current Iraqi regime has shown the power of tyranny to spread discord and violence in the Middle East. . . . Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace. The end of (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein’s regime will deprive terrorist networks of a wealthy patron . . . and other regimes will be given a clear warning that support for terror will not be tolerated. Without this outside support for terrorism, Palestinians who are working for reform and long for democracy will be in a better position to choose new leaders.”
Bush certainly cannot be accused of lacking “the vision thing.” His thinking is even more surprising given his skepticism — actually, it was more like scorn — during the 2000 presidential campaign about the very idea of nation building. Arguing that President Bill Clinton had overextended the military, Bush pledged to scale back both U.S. military involvement and the “arrogance” that girded its foreign policy.
This is the same man who cautioned during one of the 2000 debates, “I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, ‘This is the way it’s got to be.’ “
Candidate Bush took office vowing to focus on narrowly defined U.S. “vital interests,” which was another way of saying he would discard the “change the world” rhetoric and policies of the Clinton administration. Yet not only has Bush embraced the activism of his predecessor, he has pushed it beyond anything that Clinton envisioned.
The AEI speech marks the high-water point thus far in Bush’s conversion to Wilsonian idealism. He doesn’t talk about the need to contain a regional security threat or stabilize oil supplies. Rather, he is laying out a 21st century “domino theory,” in which the elimination of a ruthless tyrant and his replacement with a genuinely democratic government will lead to the establishment of other like-minded democracies throughout the region. Even more incredible than Bush’s conversion is the fact that he is advocating “regime change” in many countries that are already U.S. allies.
Talk of a new age of Athenian democracy in the region sounds fanciful. It’s a wonderful objective, but regional experts are dismissive. Writing in The New Republic about Iraq’s future, journalist James Fallows cites a consultant who calls the vision “so divorced from historical context, just so far out of court, that it is laughable.”
That’s a harsh judgment, but success will depend on a long series of conditions. First, the U.S. and its allies have to win the war against Iraq — assuming it is fought — and do it quickly. A stalemate, or even “peaceful regime change,” would undermine the U.S. ability to shape political outcomes in Iraq, the first domino in the Bush vision.
There is little doubt that the Iraq could withstand the U.S. assault, but the U.S. has to win an overwhelming victory, one that ends completely the current Baghdad regime. Only then will Washington have the free hand it wants to remake Iraq as well as the leverage with other governments in the region.
The second big “if” is the readiness of the U.S. to stay committed to the region. Bush pledged to do what it takes to assist Iraq — to engage in much scorned “nation building.” Unfortunately, the U.S. record in this endeavor is less convincing than its ability to win on the battlefield. The Afghanistan experience does not inspire much confidence.
Even though Afghanistan’s past makes clear the costs of a “failed state,” the U.S. has resisted the development of a large multinational force that would help pacify the countryside. As a result, regional warlords are reasserting control over pockets of the country. Factionalism continues, and the image of the U.S. as a benign power is becoming tattered. Washington, along with other donors, has been slow to provide funds necessary for reconstruction. The traditional framework of U.S. burden-sharing — blowing things up and letting allies rebuild them — must be revamped. An active U.S. role in reconstruction is essential to the realization of the Bush vision.
There is the very real possibility that genuine democracy in the Middle East might not be sympathetic to U.S. interests. One of the reasons that past U.S. administrations have turned a blind eye to the region’s feudal and authoritarian leaders — including, not too long ago, Hussein — is that those governments saw an alliance with Washington as in their best interests.
Any initial outburst of democratic sentiment in the Middle East is more likely to vent as anti-Americanism over the long delay in the day of reckoning rather than as gratitude toward Washington for having finally brought it. The “Arab street” is more likely to burn American flags than wave them.
The magnitude of the challenge should not be a reason to give up on the dream. The emergence of robust and stable democracies in the Middle East would be a spectacular accomplishment and the best way to better the lives of tens of millions of people. But Bush must be forthright and honest about explaining the risks and the costs. Failure to do so means that he will face mounting opposition at home and abroad — and will have himself to blame.
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