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Scholars Explore Regional Security: Introduction

Four elections later—the American, the Iraqi, the Afghan, and the Palestinian—and despite assists from Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon and Bashar al-Asad, the Peace Process, the War on Terrorism and the Democratization of Iraq have all become bogged down or set aside.

By Leonard Binder

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The facts on the ground have proven to be obdurately resistant to both the military force and the political rhetoric that have been brought to bear upon them. The Road Map has been set aside and replaced by an intricately complicated disengagement process. The War on Terrorism has become obscured in a fog of color-coded and vaguely worded warnings. And the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq has ground to a halt as a result of the disconnect between the simpleminded electoral system and the multi-layered complexity of Iraq's identity politics.

Time and again, explanations of failure begin with the words, “We did not anticipate... ,” confirming that the architects of the policy of regime change in Iraq had little idea of what they were getting into. Professor Rashid Khalidi has remarked that he knew of no Middle East specialist who would have supported the Administration’s plan to attack Iraq. Professor Frank Fukuyama has confirmed that government-affiliated area specialists were not consulted on the problems of democratizing Iraq, nor was anyone else (Los Angeles Times, 6/27/04)

How else can we explain the expenditure of so much blood and treasure in order to establish an Iranian hegemony within the region? Was there no one who could have conceived of such an unintended consequence of the creation of what we used to call a power vacuum? Even Kenneth Pollack, who is not regarded as a Middle East specialist, and who was a vigorous advocate of the invasion of Iraq on “strategic” grounds, cautioned in The Threatening Storm that “an invasion of Iraq must be done right. We must... employ all the forces necessary to secure victory quickly and with the least loss of life, and be ready to lead an international effort to rebuild Iraq afterward, to ensure that we do not simply trade the threat of a nuclear armed Saddam for the threat of an Iraq in chaos and civil war.” And then, commenting on the likely Iranian reaction, he wrote (p. 203), “But after the fall of Saddam, they [that is the Iranians] would work as hard as they can to undermine our presence in Iraq... and try to gain as much influence over the new government as they possibly can.”

As predicted, there is chaos in Iraq, and Iran is gaining influence, and the potential consequences of these developments have been delicately suggested by Vali Nasr, who wrote (in TWQ, Summer 2004, p.16), ”[For Iraq] to pass from Sunni to Shi`a domination under the aegis of the United States has immense symbolic significance.”  From the regional perspective, Pollack reminds us that the expectation was that the American invasion of Iraq would complete the encirclement of Iran (idem.) Ominously, Vali Nasr tells us (idem, p. 9) that “in the arc stretching from Pakistan to Lebanon, the number of Shi`a matches that of Sunnis: in the Gulf region, the Shi`a clearly predominate.”

The Quadrennial Defense Review Report dated September 30, 2001, but probably prepared well before 9/11, laid out the grand strategy that was to be applied in the confrontation with Iraq. The Middle East was declared to be a region of strategic importance to the US (pp. 2, 4). Consequently, no regional power, and certainly no newly emergent global power, would be permitted to dominate the region, and, if feasible, a multilateral balance of power would be sustained within the region by the application of a firm American thumb to the scales (p. 15). Forward deterrence by means of powerful strike forces stationed in the region would prevent any untoward development, but if deterrence failed, preemptive war, invasion, occupation and regime change would swiftly follow (pp.13, 17). Despite the end of the Cold War and the loosening of the bipolar blocs, the new defense policy continued to assume close cooperation with US allies.

Before the 2004 American elections, many had come to the conclusion that staying the course in Iraq meant going nowhere, but changing course abruptly might have had serious consequences on the outcome of the elections. As it turned out, there were no October surprises, and the illusion of military steadfastness was maintained. Since the elections, however, elements of doubt and a hint of greater realism have begun to appear. On March 11, 2005, two years after the preemptive invasion of Iraq and the change of regime, at the onset of a new cycle of the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Los Angeles Times featured a headline on its front page announcing that “Iraq War Compels Pentagon to Rethink Big-Picture Strategy.” On March 10, the front page of the New York Times carried a story describing “A Sharp Policy Reversal” by the US as a consequence of “a reluctant recognition that Hezbullah... is an enormous political force in Lebanon...” And again, on March 11, the New York Times on its front page describes another reluctant “major shift in strategy” by the US in agreeing on a “joint approach to negotiating with Iran.

The reaffirmation of popular support for the Bush administration has provided an opportunity for the winner, and for the rest of us, to reconsider American national interests in the region, to reassess our capabilities and our priorities, and to revisit the strategic preconceptions that have led us to disregard the political, social and cultural characteristics of those whose cooperation we seek. We are now at the point where the renewed administration is faced with the option of setting aside the fantasy of remaking the Middle East in our own image.

Attention must now be given to an analysis of the current state of play, taking into account such things as ethnic geography and demography, grassroots power structure, the differences between diaspora terror and the violence of jihad in Muslim majority states, the complex relationship between the solidarism of religious identity and the actual dispersal of religious authority, and so many other matters which have drawn the attention of regional specialists.

The US is engaged in a very challenging effort to democratize post-Saddam Iraq, and the challenges are directly related to both the lack of the right kind of knowledge and the failure to make use of the knowledge that was available. The decision to depose Saddam was unconditional, but that does not excuse the lack of any serious preparation for the constructive phase of what was to be a change of regime rather than a simple take-down. The Clinton administration had advanced the idea, but its focus was on removing Saddam, rather than establishing a democratic and capitalist state in the heart of a region dominated by centralized, dynastic, patrimonial, authoritarian, rentier, military or hierocratic dictatorships.

It appears that the problem of democratization was simplified by the assumption that it did not matter where you were coming from, as long as you knew where you were going. Strategic thinking was limited to military goals, because democracy simply requires registering every eligible citizen and making sure that they vote only once. There was no need to dwell upon the structure of the Shi`ite religious establishment, the tribal loyalties of the Sunni peasants, or the unique bonding of ethnicity and geography throughout Iraq.

Support for Iraq during the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War was calculated to isolate revolutionary Iran and to add a measure of protection to Saudi Arabia. Support for Iraq, as the Cold War wound down, and as the conflict in Afghanistan intensified, accelerated the decline of Soviet influence in the Middle East. The elements of an emergent Pax Americana could be readily perceived as the conflict in the Gulf discovered its denouement in mutual attrition. It was hard to imagine, and harder yet to to predict that Saddam’s Iraq would turn against its benefactor and become the major obstacle to the consolidation of that Pax Americana.

But maybe, just maybe, Saddam perceived something that no one else did, and that is that the strength of Iraq was its weakness. Here, the paradox derives, not from Saddam’s lack of WMDs, but from the fragility of Iraq’s social fabric and its contiguity with the two strongest regional powers: Turkey and Iran. Despite some facile discussions of a regional balance which presumably had prevailed during the Cold War, it was rather that the regional stability that had been rigorously imposed by the two superpowers created the illusion of an autonomous balance. After all, something must be wrong when the regional balancer itself is the strongest global power.

Iraq was unable to play the balancer, as the US might have hoped, and Iraq’s collapse threatened to bring the entire house of cards down, as the end of the Cold War drew near. The US seriously considered pumping Iraq up, and encouraging it to play a more assertive regional role—but it could not find a way to restructure regional power so as to be able to abstain from interference in regional affairs. The notion that Iraq could function as a lynch pin for the regional system died hard (if it is dead yet), after having persisted through the Iran-Iraq War, the Kuwait War and the current war.

The reason why it was necessary to go all the way to Baghdad was to be able to select the interim government that the US wanted, and to direct that government toward the policies of regional balance, or stability, or status quo. In the event, the invasion has destroyed the government of Iraq and the US has been unable to put another one firmly in its place—as conflict spreads throughout the region. The consequence, as we have seen, is the very opposite of what it was hoped would have been accomplished, thus raising the stakes on when and how US forces will be withdrawn from Iraq, and calling to mind the withdrawals from Saigon, from Beirut, from Somalia, and at least two withdrawals from commitments of troops and supplies to the Afghanistan conflict.

Afghanistan was to be the poster country—the new model of the way in which the benign global hegemon would exercise its authority and power in managing both regional disturbances and international terrorist threats. At the start, everything looked pretty good. The US cooperated with the Northern Alliance, sought connections with Pushtun warlords and tribal chiefs, then demonstrated its powerful military capacity and quickly subdued the Taliban, compelled cooperation from Pakistan, providing India with an incentive to press for the peaceful resolution of long-standing disputes with Pakistan, and reduced the pressure on several Central Asian post-Soviet states.

But despite our limited ability to think in regional, structural terms, for the Middle East, in the short term at least, it appears that little attention was paid to the impact of our intervention in the Central and South Asian regions, remembering of course that China is a world power with interests in adjoining regions even if it is often referred to as an East Asian power. As a consequence, the structure of the Central Asian and South Asian power balances have been shaken without any clearly expressed idea of what should or could happen in this extremely volatile area within a time period that has suddenly collapsed into now, not later.

While the Israel-Palestine dispute has enormous cultural, symbolic and moral significance, its solution is more dependent upon the regional balance of power, than will such a solution influence or shape the regional balance of power. It seems to me that the Two State Solution has been proposed and accepted by the principals as a neutral or compromise solution, maximizing the collective payoffs to the many interested bystanders, and minimizing the losses to the Israelis and Palestinians (from their respective perspectives, at least).

The Two State Solution now appears to be the only game in town from the perspective of situational morality and practicality, despite the fact that some feel that the Israel-Palestine dispute is of such importance that the Middle East regional balance ought to be so structured as to provide firm guarantees, not only against a breach of the agreement, but also and more importantly to diminish any possible incentive by regional players to induce a breach of the Two State Treaty.

Others, of course, feel that the Two State Solution ought to be subordinated to a restructuring of the entire region in order to achieve a stable balance. Obviously, at this moment, there are are a number of players who are reluctant to help in maintaining the status quo, and Iran is foremost among them. It is also the case, at the present sounding, that we should expect to see an increase in the number of sovereign smaller states, rather than a consolidation of territory and sovereignty within the region as many would wish. Palestine itself will be one of the new units, to which we may add an independent Lebanon, and, forgive me for mentioning it, a partitioned Iraq.

Thank you for your patient attention to these opinionated views. They are personal views, and neither the International Institute nor the Von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies should be held responsible for these statements. These personal views demonstrate the kind of interest which has led us to convene this symposium. There are a lot of serious issues to be explored, and there are a lot of ideas out there that have not been seriously examined. Moreover, I think that it may be both intellectually and politically useful, occasionally, to shift the form of the debate from a dialog between the Administration and the Academy to one among ourselves. I thank you for your response to our invitation. I am very glad to see you here, and I wish you Godspeed in your deliberations. But please be kind to one another.

Center for Near Eastern Studies