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Ever since the United States toppled the Taliban last fall, critics of the Bush administration — and not a few of its friends — have warned that success was breeding overconfidence and that such hubris might lead to tragic mistakes. Today those predictions appear to have come true. Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah compound may stand scarred by the morning commando raid by the Israeli Defense Forces, but President Bush’s post-Afghanistan policies in the Middle East and in the war against terror seem equally in tatters.
Conservative foreign policy hands have long believed that American failures in the Middle East were due in large part to the inconstancy, weakness and equivocation of American leaders. Quick successes in Afghanistan seemed to bear that theory out. Despite naysaying from around the globe (and claims that an attack on Afghanistan would only inflame the Muslim anger that spurred the 9/11 attacks), the actual result was quite different. Equivocating allies and some former foes ended up supporting American resolve, and the hated Taliban regime quickly gave way to a far more tractable and even pro-Western government in Kabul.
That success convinced administration policy planners that a host of items on the conservative foreign policy wish list might also be achieved with a similar demonstration of force.
Going back to Iraq topped the list.
Removing Saddam Hussein from power — or, as conservative think-tank denizens like to call it, “regime change” — has been a conservative hobbyhorse since the mid-1990s. But buoyed by their Afghan successes, hawkish administration policy planners decided that overthrowing Saddam might not only be desirable but necessary and, frankly, not all that hard to do.
If the United States would only make clear its unshakable determination to overthrow the Iraqi regime by whatever means necessary, said columnists like Charles Krauthammer and foreign policy hands like Don Rumsfeld’s close advisor Richard Perle, Arab states would quickly fall into line and support an American attack. Not only that, it would trigger unrest and insurrections in Iraq as well, as disenchanted Iraqis acted on the certainty of American determination. “The idea that [attacking Iraq] is going to damage us in the Arab world is nonsense,” Perle told Chris Matthews late last November. “We will be seen not as invaders, but as liberators.”
Even as the successes in Afghanistan remained tenuous and the crisis in Israel spun out of control, laying the groundwork for the Iraq adventure occupied most of the administration’s attention in the first months of 2002. True, there was some internal disagreement. Hawks centering on the Defense Department and the Office of the Vice President pressed for a frontal military assault against Iraq to topple the Saddam Hussein regime once and for all. More moderate voices at the State Department favored, at least as a first step, forcing Iraq to readmit the weapons inspectors, who had been expelled in 1998. But both administration camps had the same basic idea in mind: The United States should use the military and diplomatic clout earned with rapid victory over the Taliban to push for a solution to the Iraq problem.
That was the thinking behind Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent trip to the Middle East. With the wind in his sails and backed by a president who had shown himself willing to flex America’s muscle, Cheney was supposed to line up moderate Arab support for a renewed attack on Iraq.
Only it didn’t quite turn out that way. The administration had apparently misgauged the depth of feeling about the Palestinian issue — or at least underestimated its explosive political salience within the Arab world. At capital after capital, the idea of whacking Iraq was given a chilly reception. Cheney was told in no uncertain terms by Arab leaders that a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — the issue the administration had been pointedly ignoring — was far higher on their list of priorities than any new coming-to-blows with Iraq. And the post-Afghanistan mojo didn’t work nearly as well as predicted. Rather than persuading the Arabs to stop worrying about the Palestinians and start focusing on Iraq, Cheney ended up doing his own turnabout and getting bogged down in an embarrassing on-again off-again negotiation over whether he would meet with Arafat. Cheney didn’t turn the Arab leaders; the Arab leaders turned him.
The administration didn’t expect moderate Arab leaders to jump on the bomb-Iraq bandwagon, but they did expect that the lesson of Afghanistan would convince Arab leaders to at least acquiesce to an American attack. They had to — without such acquiescence from the Arabs, a full-throttle attack on Iraq would be difficult at best. And without the cooperation of the Saudis, who allowed the United States to use their bases during the Gulf War, a ground invasion would be all but impossible. By the time Dick Cheney left on his recent trip to the region, those problems had become apparent. But the administration was locked into the strategy.
Cheney’s embarrassment set the stage for an even bigger humiliation yesterday at the Arab League Summit in Beirut. The Arab states, which the Bush administration had been trying to line up for another attack on Iraq, ended up brokering a reconciliation with Saddam after almost a decade of isolation — something that apparently came as a total surprise to the Bush administration. In a showy demonstration of goodwill, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (the kingdom’s de facto ruler) warmly embraced Izzat Ibrahim, the head of Iraq’s delegation to the summit. Even the representative from Kuwait (and also its de facto leader) Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed shook Ibrahim’s hand.
It’s not that American success in Afghanistan should not have been put to use to advance U.S. priorities in the region. But the Bush administration fell for its own spin and became entranced by its own Iraq-hawk tendencies at the expense of more pressing priorities. Since last December, administration policy planners have been dreaming of rolling up the world’s various rogue states like pins in a bowling alley and imagining that a mere show of seriousness and resolve would get Arab states to line up for an attack on Iraq, just as they had during Bush’s father’s administration. That indiscipline now seems to have made matters worse. The Bush administration’s effort to marshal the Arab states behind us to put the screws to Iraq has given Saddam Hussein an opening to line the Arab states up behind him to do the same to us.
Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.More Joshua Micah Marshall.