Commentary

Middle East Report

Marking on March 20th the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, U.S. President George W. Bush stated that the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power was, and always will be, the right one, a view that is certainly not compatible with that of the majority of Americans who are citing the high costs in American lives and treasure and want to see the U.S. start pulling its military troops out of Mesopotamia.

But while admitting that the Bush administration’s original justifications for going to war - including its assertions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that Iraq had operational links to Al-Qaida - have been repeatedly debunked or discredited, opponents of the idea of pulling U.S. troops from Iraq warn that such a move will not only play into the hands of Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, but will also create the conditions for a bloody civil war in the country (involving the Arab-Shiites, the Arab-Sunnis and the Kurds) which will draw into it other Middle Eastern players (Iran; Saudi Arabia; Syria; Jordan) and which could ignite a major regional conflict. And the stay-the-course proponents advocate that American forces stay in Iraq until the country achieves some sense of political stability and internal security. That process, according to presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain, could take more than 100 years.

Iraq War critics, including the two leading Democratic presidential candidates, counter that it was the ousting of Saddam Hussein that helped open the Pandora’s Box of sectarian discord between the Shiites and the Sunnis in Iraq, igniting the current violence between the ethnic and religious groups in the country and turning it into new safe-heaven for terrorists from all around the Middle East. Al-Qaida was able to establish its presence in Iraq only in the aftermath of the collapse of Saddam’s secular Ba’ath regime which had been one of the fiercest foes of Osama Bin Laden’s radical Islamist terrorist group.

At the same time, the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led Iraq, which served to counter-balance the power of the Shiite-controlled regime in Tehran, ended-up helping to strengthen the power of Iran in the Persian Gulf. The government in U.S.-liberated Baghdad, which is composed of Shiite political figures and groups with close ties to Iran and the Hizbollah movement in Lebanon, which represents the growing Shiite community in Lebanon, have become part of what the pro-American Arab-Sunni regimes describe as a pro-Iran Shiite Crescent in the Middle East.

Indeed, historians of the future will probably conclude that the implementation of President Bush’s neoconservative agenda in the Middle East – the toppling of the Saddam’s secular Sunni regime; the resurgence of Iran and its Shiite allies; a series of U.S.-driven elections that strengthened the hands of Islamist parties in Iran, Lebanon and Palestine; the breakdown in the Israel-Palestine peace process – provoked a set of powerful revolutionary changes that are challenging the post-Cold War status-quo in the Middle East, and in a way that runs contrary to the interests of the U.S. and its traditional allies in the Middle East.

To be fair to President Bush and the neocons, these changes would have probably taken place at some point in the future, since the end of the superpower rivalry had also shaken the relative stability in the Middle East provided by the geo-strategic stalemate between Washington and Moscow in the region - with each side placing constraints on the power of their respective allies. With America emerging in the early 1990’s as the sole hegemon in the Middle East, it was only a matter of time before the anti-status quo forces in the region – radical Arab-Sunni groups that opposed Saudi Arabia’s alliance with America; radical Shiite organizations hoping to strengthen their power in Lebanon, Iraq and the Persian Gulf; an assertive Iran; Kurds seeking independence; Palestinians demanding an end to Israeli occupation - will dare to challenge U.S. power and invite a powerful American response.

In a way, President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and turn the U.S. as a major catalyst of change helped to fast-forward history by ten years, making it more likely that the transformation of the Middle East would not have to be postponed until 2015. Instead, the five years of the Bush War helped set in motion the most dramatic makeover of the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Western takeover of the region after World War I. Some of the scenarios that could result:

  • The possible break-up of Iraq into three mini-states, including a semi-independent Kurdish region, a Shiite area that would fall under Iran’s sphere of influence, and a Sunni zone that would gravitate towards its Arab-Sunni neighbors led by Saudi Arabia.
  • The emergence of Iran with nuclear weapons as a regional hegemon in the Persian Gulf that would spread its political and religious influence into other Shiite areas in the Middle East and try to either challenge or to accommodate the interests of the U.S. and its allies, led by Saudi Arabia.
  • The flexing of the diplomatic, economic and military muscles of Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf that could extend their influence into other Sunni parts of the Middle East, especially in Syria/Lebanon and Israel/Palestine, launch a drive to develop an Arab-Sunni nuclear bomb and strengthen ties with the European Union and China as a way of countering U.S. influence in the region.
  • Growing regional and outside pressure to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict as part of an arrangement that will include Jordan and perhaps even Egypt. Without such a resolution, the area of Israel/Palestine will gradually become a bi-national state.
  • Lebanon will once again become a central arena for regional power struggles, with Iran and the Saudis trying to establish spheres of influence there, and Syria re-emerging once again as a central power broker there.

In Iraq, much of the conditions for a de-facto division of the country are already taking place through a process of ethnic cleansing, which explains why the violence seems to be going down. Some would argue that the civil war has already taken place and that mixed areas and neighborhoods are coming under the control of the Shiites or the Sunnis, with the Kurds enjoying almost complete political independence in northern Iraq.

Hence what the new U.S. President will have to do is to try to formalize this Iraqi “soft partition” as part of a regional agreement that will involve the leading outside players – Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria – along the lines of the 1995 Dayton Agreement that led to the establishment of independent Bosnia and Herzegovina and the end of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.

But such an agreement will require a readjustment of U.S. policy in the Middle East to the new balance of power in the region – which the Bush Administration helped to create – including a diplomatic dialogue with Iran (and Syria) and a willingness to cooperate with a more assertive Saudi Arabia. Unless the new administration take steps in that direction, the U.S. could find itself drawn into an even longer and costly conflict – probably a Ten Year War – after which the U.S. – not unlike after the five years of the Bush War – would be less secure and with less influence in the Middle East and around the world.

Leon T. Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy, international trade, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. He is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.