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IRAQ: THE STAKES: Mideast more risky, some say
The Detroit Free Press
June 28, 2004

WASHINGTON -- When President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. invasion of Iraq 15 months ago, he portrayed it as a bold move not just to oust its president, Saddam Hussein, but to begin transforming the Middle East.

Terrorists would be repelled, Arab autocrats would accept reform and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would become more solvable.

As the United States prepares to return sovereignty to Iraq on Wednesday, some U.S. officials and experts say that plan has gone drastically, even dangerously, wrong.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the way they were handled, have led to record-high rage at the United States across the Muslim world and beyond, these officials and experts say. The Al Qaeda terrorist network's recruitment has been stoked and would-be reformers drowned out, pointing to a perilous, not safer, future.

"U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s," a senior CIA official, who tracked the terrorist leader for years, wrote in a soon-to-be-released book, "Imperial Hubris."

"There is nothing bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq," wrote the official, who authored the book anonymously because he still works for U.S. intelligence.

A new Georgetown University report reaches similar conclusions, adding that the United States "is now vulnerable to strategic reversal in the region."

"U.S. policies are in deep trouble" on critical issues such as the so-called road map for Palestinian-Israeli peace, democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, says the report by the university's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. "The gap between Washington's official rhetoric and on-the-ground performance is widening."

Confronted with polls showing weakening public confidence in Bush's handling of the terrorism issue, the president and his aides staunchly defend the Iraq invasion and its outcome.

"People wonder whether we'll succeed, I know that," Bush told cheering soldiers at Ft. Lewis, Wash., on June 18. "But I'm here to tell you these are essential tasks for our security and for peace of the world. By helping the rise of democracy in Iraq and throughout the world, you are giving people an alternative to bitterness and hatred."

But Bush appears to have lowered his sights in Iraq and the broader Middle East as the U.S. occupation has foundered, beset by a persistent and violent guerrilla rebellion.

The United States is struggling to stabilize Iraq and guide it toward elections next year. Some see the Wednesday handover and the weeks following as Bush's last chance to make good on his promises of democracy in Iraq and a better future for the Middle East.

"There's a big gap between the lofty goals we articulated before the war and what we're talking about now in the trenches of Baghdad," said Sandy Berger, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser and now a consultant to Sen. John Kerry's Democratic presidential campaign.

Creating a stable and prosperous Iraq "is the bottom-line" goal now, Berger said. "We can't go below that."

Gary Schmitt, the executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative research group that backed the invasion, said the lofty goals Bush set were meant as a long-term vision, not near-term reality. "These things are always overstated," he said.

It's still possible that Iraq will become peaceful and democratic, and that will influence political changes in neighboring Arab nations, Schmitt said. Still, he conceded: "Does it have" an immediate "domino impact? No."

In Iraq and beyond, Bush and his foreign-policy team misjudged the ability of U.S. military power to change the world, critics say.

Most polls show deep anger at the United States, even in allied countries in Europe and Asia.

Outside the United States, "most people think we've lost our minds" and are worried that U.S. actions will endanger them as well, said John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago political science professor and prominent war critic.

Bush cast the Iraq war as part of his war on terrorism, claiming that Hussein's regime had ties with Al Qaeda.

But that claim has been increasingly challenged, and the threat from terrorists shows no signs of abating.

State Department counterterrorism coordinator Cofer Black said the invasion of Iraq has not set back the fight against terrorism.

"I think when you reduce the areas at which terrorists can be trained, from which they can be facilitated and sent against targets, this is a good thing," Black said. The arguments now made by critics were used in the past to oppose U.S. action against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, he said.

But the staff of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks found recently that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda.

Winds of change

the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems as intractable as ever, stirring up passions and violence.

Supporters of the Iraq war "argued that the road to Jerusalem was through Baghdad," Mearsheimer said. "It does not look like the Arab-Israeli conflict is being solved."

In the Arab world, some leaders, such as Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, are cautiously pursuing economic and political liberalization.

"It's very clear there's a lot of political and economic ferment going on in the region," said Schmitt of the Project for the New American Century. But whether it bears fruit depends on the experiment in Iraq, he said.

Elites in Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere say reformers have been undercut by U.S. policies, including Bush's unwillingness to more aggressively mediate the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Posted: July 13, 2004


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