Bush’s flawed Middle East manifesto

Last month, Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, compared the present post-Iraq war situation in the Middle East to post World War II Europe. “America,” wrote Rice in her August 7 editorial published in the Washington Post, “committed itself to the long-term transformation of Europe.” She goes on to say: “…our policymakers set out to work for a Europe where another war was unthinkable.”

Her views – and quite naturally one would assume those of her boss – on the administration’s guidelines upon which to build peace and democracy in the Middle East, contain the thesis of the Bush administration’s manifesto regarding the future of the Middle East. It will most likely not work.

Rice advocates working with those in the Middle East who “seek progress toward greater democracy, tolerance, prosperity and freedom,” and advocates copying the European experiment and applying it to the Middle East.

While indeed a noble concept, Bush’s plan for spoon-feeding democracy and prosperity to the Middle East remains, nevertheless, one with great many shortfalls. The Bush administration may well find many similarities in post-WWII Europe and today’s Levant, but in truth, it’s the dissimilarities that abound.

Undeniably, the United States played an important role in guaranteeing the stability, and particularly the security, of Western Europe all throughout the long years of the Cold War. But one must not ignore the fact that a stable Europe would have never been a possibility without, first and foremost, the strong desire of the Europeans themselves to place conflict behind them. After two devastating world wars and economic disasters that ravaged the continent, the Europeans finally realized it was time to look ahead.

“In an inherently unstable world, only the primacy of law and stable institutions can guarantee co-operation among nations and hence peace,” declared Jacques Delors, a former European Commissioner and finance minister in Francois Mitterrand’s first government in 1981, during a speech delivered in 1997 on the history of building a unified Europe.

Finding leaders who sought progress, democracy and freedom in Europe in 1945 was not difficult. Alas, that is hardly the case in most of the Middle East today. Granted, there are many people of goodwill across the region with a strong desire for peace and who wish to see true democracy implemented. But how many of those in a position of leadership in the Arab world would willingly allow free elections without fear of losing their grip on power?

“Muslim leaders are failing, first, to provide justice (adl) and, second, to create the conditions for the existence of compassion and balance (ihsan) or knowledge (ilm) in their societies,” wrote Akbar S. Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, DC, in his book, Islam Under Siege. The US had hoped that the fall of Saddam would accentuate the drive for democracy. Instead, it appears to have crystallized anti-American feelings across the region. Jihadi Islamist fundamentalists are reported heading to Iraq for a chance to fight American soldiers. Two recent attacks against the Jordanian diplomatic mission and the UN headquarters in Baghdad, which killed representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and at least 20 others, reinforce the belief that the US is far from controlling the situation on the ground.

Following the capitulation of Nazi Germany in 1945, the old continent was ripe for a new start. Realization set in across Europe that war was not about to advance them, but rather regress socio-economic reforms. Western Europe came together in the face of a new threat – communism. “The memory of the failures of the inter-war years was still in the minds of everyone,” said Delors.

In Iraq, however, the enemy – extremist violence – comes from within. Additionally, the reconstruction of Germany was carried out mostly by local contractors, whereas in Iraq, the lucrative business deals are mostly being granted to US corporations.

Leaders such as Winston Churchill, who as early as September 1946 proposed establishing a United States of Europe, and West Germany’s Chancellor Konrad Adenauer emerged to rebuild the continent. But, perhaps, more importantly, visionaries such as Jean Monet and Robert Schuman – the instigators of a united Europe and the fathers of the modern-day European Community – were able to look into the future and envision a united Europe. “That is why the initiators of the community model, which gradually came into being with the treaties of Paris (1950) and Rome (1957) made a point of thinking creatively,” said Delors. “There was a new element at work this time around in that the idea was championed by statesmen. In other words, the ideal of transforming Europe had emerged out of the intellectual arena, as a political necessity of the utmost urgency,” said Delors.

That, regrettably, is far from being the case in the present-day Middle East, a region that until now has only spawned more iron-fisted despots or violent revolutions, than Adenauers or Schumans. Additionally, post-WWII Europe had managed to place aside its past differences, building together in unity. The ongoing Arab-Israeli dispute – seen by many as the nucleus of all continued unsettlement in the area – does not allow for a peaceful building process, yet. Neither does the education system in place in some Arab states, such as the Wahhabi-funded madrassas that fail to establish an educated elite needed to construct a brighter future for the region.

The first logical step, therefore, would be to address the leitmotif of Arab discontent and excuse for continued war footing that persists in some Arab states. It is important to point out that once the Arab-Israeli dispute is peacefully resolved, and the reason for maintaining a war stance dissipated, it will only be a matter of time before the urge for greater democratic reforms begins to be heard.

Which is what Bush hopes the “road map” will achieve by 2005. By then, the plan calls for a Palestinian and Jewish state living side-by-side in peace. It is also what they hoped jump-starting Iraqi democracy would accomplish. But don’t hold your breath. Road bumps such as the massive bus bomb that killed no less than 20 people in Jerusalem in mid-August and wounded another 100 are not about to make things easier for the peace process.

Rice talks about America’s long-term commitment to transform the region, but the Arabs are still far from convinced of two things that remain paramount before they can accept America as a full-fledged partner in the peace-building process. America and Western Europe – despite their differences – saw eye-to-eye on most major issues relating to the defense of the continent in the face of Soviet expansionism. Such is not the case in the Middle East, where the Arabs and the US greatly diverge on the Palestine/Israel issue.

Additionally, America must clearly demonstrate that it is indeed committed and here to stay (at least politically), as was the case in Europe. When the end of hostilities was announced on May 8th, 1945, aggression against US troops ceased. In contrast, in Iraq, over 140 US soldiers have lost their lives since Bush declared the end of major combat operations on May 1st. While no exact figures are available, some estimates place the number of Iraqis killed during the same period in the thousands. Many will argue that the situation for the average Iraqi today is much worse than it was before the war.

US troops were greeted throughout Europe as liberators. That is far from being the case in Iraq today, where anti-American sentiment appears to be on the increase and the security situation getting worse.Iraq, sitting on the world’s second-largest oil reserves, is only producing 750,000 barrels of oil per day, down from a pre-war mark that hovered around a million bpd. And that figure is down from 900,000 in June due to continued power cuts and acts of sabotage. As a result, Iraq is forced to import fuel for domestic consumption. Iraqis consume about 15 million liters (3.9 million gallons) of gasoline a day. The country can barely meet that need with domestic production. They use about 17 million liters of diesel, mostly for trucks. Currently, Iraqi refineries are producing only half that amount, according to U.S. military estimates. Ironically, oil is being imported from Kuwait and other countries to help cover the gap. Meanwhile, Iraqis blame the Americans for their ills. The hearts and minds of the Arab world the US had set out to conquer are being lost.

Yes, quite possibly, Bush, in his heart of hearts, is devoted to pursuing the “road map” to peace. Quite possibly, he believes that he can keep pushing the reluctant participants, prodding some here, coaxing others there, or even threatening some when needed. But, and here is the breaker, how committed would his successor be? Let’s assume the following scenario, just for the sake of argument. The situation in Iraq continues as it is for the next few years with a low-grade war of attrition being waged against US troops, who are forced to remain there. One American killed today, two more wounded tomorrow, another one or two killed the following day. Over two or three years, the casualties begin to add up and the electorate back home starts to get nervous. Not to mention the economic impact the continued occupation weighs on the American economy. (See Executive, August 2003)

Bush père found himself in a quite similar situation at the close of the first Gulf War in 1991. He had won a quick victory over Saddam Hussein, liberated Kuwait, freed the oil wells, defeated the Iraqi military and, for a short while, appeared to be a hero. But the domestic economic situation was suffering and that is what lost him the election to Bill Clinton. Bush junior could well find himself facing a similar conundrum.

Bush, meanwhile, remains committed. But if he looses the election in 2004 and his successor, possibly under electorate pressure, decides to bring the boys home and pull out of Iraq. Then what? American foreign policy has been known to suffer from severe attention deficit disorder in the past. Look at Lebanon; look at Somalia.

Secondly, the United States’ lack of objectivity in the Arab-Israeli conflict is another mark against it in trying to evenly mediate with both sides. There was no thorny issue comparable to the Palestinian-Israel one in post WWII Europe, and this made it easier for the US to be accepted as an equal partner in shaping the continent. Neither was there an issue of religion, which exists in the present context. Most of the Arab world continues to view the US war in Iraq as one of occupation and not as a war of liberation. Not to mention those who see it as a clash of civilization, as pointed out by Samuel Huntington.

This is where Europe (and the United Nations) can play a greater role in the peace building process. Europe is seen by Arabs as being friendlier to their cause, and naturally, they tend to trust Europeans more than they do the US. Rice, in her exposé, stresses the importance of including Europe and all free nations, “working in full partnership with those in the region who share our belief in the power of human freedom.”

But will the US accept to take a back seat now in the rebuilding of Iraq and allow Europe – including France and Germany, who opposed the war and were labeled “old Europe” by Donald Rumsfeld – to become engaged in Iraq? The answer to Bush’s manifesto for peace in the Middle East may lie in the answer to that question. Much as the US may dislike the idea, international participation may be the key to success.

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