Between Iraq and a hard place

From the Iraq quagmire to our incoherent Saudi relationship to our pro-Sharon tilt, U.S. Mideast policy is a shambles.

Published July 14, 2004 7:48PM (EDT)

June appeared to be a very good month for the Bush administration in the Middle East. After almost a year of bad news from Iraq, terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, continued bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians, and unsuccessful efforts to garner support from major U.S. allies in the reconstruction of Iraq, the Bush administration secured four quick victories in the span of three weeks. By the July Fourth weekend, it would have Americans believing that the preceding three weeks had vindicated its strategy in the Middle East.

On June 8, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 1546, which, among other things, endorsed the formation of the interim Iraqi government, welcomed the termination of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and looked forward to the "reassertion of Iraqi sovereignty." Two days later, at the G-8 summit, President Bush stood with other world leaders who unanimously endorsed a U.S.-sponsored plan to promote democracy in the Middle East. At the end of the month, at the NATO summit in Istanbul, Turkey, Washington's European allies committed themselves to training new Iraqi security forces -- but not to deploying the troops Bush wanted. Finally, on June 28, formal sovereignty returned to Iraq, and to cap off that momentous event, the United States transferred custody of Saddam Hussein to the Iraqi government for arraignment in an Iraqi courtroom.

Closer analysis of those achievements, however, reveals a far different picture than one of an administration that is master of its Middle East policy. Instead, what emerges is the image of a White House putting the best spin on a policy that has run into serious difficulties. To be sure, everything in U.N. diplomacy is a compromise, but the final resolution that the Security Council endorsed was hardly the one the White House wanted. Yet, so desperate was the administration to establish a semblance of international legitimacy for its Iraq policy (and simultaneously defuse one of John Kerry's talking points) that the Bush team at the United Nations bowed even to French pressure for key changes to the text.

On the G-8 summit and the reform plan known as the Partnership for Progress and a Common Future With the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa, one has to give credit where credit is due: Placing political liberalization and economic reform high on the U.S.-Middle East agenda is a step in the right direction. However, the reform plan that the administration is touting is little more than a repackaging of largely old ideas that have had a negligible effect on authoritarian leaders in the region. Reportedly, the administration had wanted to be bolder but could not muster the support of its Western allies.

The White House argues that the transatlantic rift over Iraq is something of the past, especially since NATO has agreed to train Iraqi soldiers and policemen. "Retrain" is perhaps a better term. After all, in November 2003, the secretary of defense boasted that U.S. forces had trained and equipped 118,000 Iraqis in five security forces. Yet all the talk of the Iraqis' taking responsibility for their own security proved to be based more on wishful thinking than on a real assessment of the capability of Iraqi forces. In April, many of Iraq's new policemen and soldiers refused to fight in Fallujah and either deserted or joined Muqtada al-Sadr's insurgents in Najaf, and the White House clearly could have used help from NATO troops in putting down the insurgency there.

While some have suggested that the way the Coalition Provisional Authority handed over political authority to the interim Iraqi government -- in a brief ceremony held in a small windowless office inside the Green Zone, two days earlier than planned -- revealed the administration's intention to cut and run, this critique is unfair. Given the intensification of insurgent-sponsored violence as June 30 drew near, the decision not to hold an elaborate ceremony on one of Saddam's former parade grounds seemed prudent.

Nevertheless, the transfer of sovereignty and Saddam's impending trial raise a number of serious issues. First, and most basic: Has anything changed for average Iraqis? While the United Nations, Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference and European Union have all recognized the interim Iraqi government, this means very little for Iraqis who must contend daily with the hazards of the new Iraq. The now defunct CPA and the U.S. military have rehabilitated major portions of the country's infrastructure, built schools and resupplied hospitals, but Iraqis still do not have reliable access to basic services. And despite the approximately $20 billion invested -- which is primarily Iraq's own money, thanks to the return of Iraqi oil production -- most Iraqis are experiencing significant economic hardship.

Of course, much of the Iraqis' misery can be attributed to the still tenuous security situation. While remnants of the old regime and foreign jihadists press their insurgency, Muqtada al-Sadr is keeping his options open. In one sermon the cleric signals his desire for a political role in the new Iraq, and in the next he calls on Iraqis to resist the continued occupation.

The occupation is, in fact, the crux of the issue. Al-Sadr's message and that of the other insurgent groups tend to resonate with so many Iraqis because, despite the transfer of political authority, 138,000 U.S. troops remain there. Unfortunately, there are no good options for Washington. Any new administration will be faced with the Catch-22 of the U.S. presence in Iraq: U.S. forces cannot leave because the Iraqis cannot provide security themselves, but the longer the U.S. troops remain, the more likely violence will continue. Average Iraqis are caught in the crossfire, further embittering them toward the United States.

The second issue relates to Saddam. Although the sight of the former tyrant in leg irons and handcuffs as he was arraigned on July 1 riveted the world -- and was testimony to the positive use of American power -- the trial of Saddam poses significant risks to the United States. Saddam's performance during his court appearance indicates that he and his lawyers will seek both to undermine the authority of the court and to expose the ties between the United States and his regime during the Iran-Iraq war. While this holds out the potential to embarrass some former and at least one currently serving senior official -- that is, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who met with Saddam twice in the 1980s as President Reagan's special envoy to Baghdad -- there are more serious dangers. Saddam's assertion that the court is mere "political theater," combined with a tenuous security environment and a fragile political process, could undermine the legitimacy of any new Iraqi government.

An Iraqi government that is considered illegitimate would be more vulnerable to attacks from political entrepreneurs who claim they are not stooges of the United States and are thus the only ones who can establish order. Given the political dynamics in the rest of the Middle East, an Islamist extremist or military strongman would likely emerge to play this role. Such an outcome not only would further unravel the Bush administration's entire project in Iraq but could also lead to a variety of dire consequences, including civil war and Kurdish secession.

All of these problems are emblematic of the White House's flawed strategy in the Middle East. In the post-Cold War era, Washington's primary interests in the region have been to ensure the free flow of oil, to contain rogue regimes, and to preserve Israeli security. Other than its disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Bush administration during its first nine months pursued a Middle Eastern strategy similar to that of its predecessors. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the administration added combating terrorism and promoting democracy in the Middle East to this agenda.

At the same time, the attacks provided an opportunity for those in the administration determined to topple Saddam to think more systematically about achieving this goal. Two camps emerged, united only in their desire to use Iraq as a means to advance their different goals. The first camp consists of Bush, Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld and to some extent Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who apparently believed that the United States needed to establish its credibility after 9/11 and eight years of the Clinton administration's perceived dithering on Iraq. For this group, only a demonstration of decisive American power would sufficiently intimidate the Arab world, forestalling additional terrorist attacks and altering the behavior of other rogue states in the region. The belief of these officials in their own hypothesis-driven intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction gave the situation in Iraq a sense of urgency and set the United States on the path to war. Democracy and human rights in Iraq were added as a justification for the war only after it became apparent that the United States would not find troves of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

The second camp believed Iraq was the fulcrum for promoting democracy in the Middle East and for ensuring a range of other interests. Simply, these officials within the Pentagon and the White House believed that the construction of a peaceful, democratic, pro-Western Iraq would provide emotional and political encouragement to Arab reformers and liberals and thereby pressure authoritarian leaders in the region to undertake fundamental reforms. This group also assumed that with Saddam gone, the Palestinians would realize they had no military option and would thus become more forthcoming in peace negotiations. Moreover, the security of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors in the Gulf would increase, ensuring the flow of oil, and leaders in Syria and Iran would alter their ways for fear that they too would meet Saddam's fate.

Needless to say, things have not worked out as either camp within the administration expected.

To the detriment of broader Middle East policy, the administration continues to pursue key aspects of these deeply flawed strategies. The result is significant policy drift. For example, what is the U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia? Riyadh is one of Washington's most important allies and currently confronts a significant threat to its security. What is the policy toward Iran, another critically important country that seems to be on the cusp of both the development of nuclear weapons and potentially important political change? What is the administration's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, other than following the lead of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon? The administration has yet to provide clear answers to any of those questions.

As a substitute for substance, the president consistently invokes the "war on terror" and his "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East," but these two catchphrases do not amount to a tangible strategy. This is probably a good thing, since there is a significant amount of tension in the two ideas. To fight terrorism and confront radicalism, the United States seeks close ties with Arab military and security organizations. Yet, the officers that lead these institutions have historically resisted political liberalization. At the same time, Washington is providing rhetorical encouragement to those -- predominantly the tiny group of Arab liberals and a variety of Islamists -- who seek to undermine the very leaders the United States has identified as partners in the war on terror.

The Bush administration's strategy in the Middle East has led the United States into a hornet's nest of competing interests and claims and has compromised U.S. credibility in the region. Whatever Washington does to satisfy one important regional constituency tends to have negative consequences for another equally important constituency. Think of the competing political demands of the Iraqi Shiites and the Kurds.

The next administration, regardless of who is president, will confront similar problems and would do well to develop a strategy that takes into account the nuances of politics in the region, recognizes the value of allies -- both governmental and nongovernmental -- and understands the collective cultural sensitivity of a region that does not regard American power positively. The task will not be easy.

By Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook's day job is as a foreign policy analyst in Washington, DC. His most recent book, "False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East," was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

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Donald Rumsfeld Iran Iraq War Middle East Syria United Nations