America's dream for a new Middle East
Bu Toby Harnden
Daily Telegraph, UK - 18 March 2003
Iraq may simply be the first domino in a radical policy to democratise the Arab world. Toby Harnden reports on the bigger picture
War with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq is the centrepiece of a grand American strategy to transform the Middle East that is as ambitious and idealistic as it is fraught with pitfalls.
"People who think like me get accused of having messianic views on the subject," a senior Bush administration official, seen as one of the principal intellectual forces behind the Iraq policy of "regime change", told The Daily Telegraph. "The truth of the matter is it starts from a view that real stability doesn't come from blocking people's hopes and aspirations and broadening all change."
Instead, he said, America should create the conditions for democracy to flourish. "If you can keep the weeds out of the garden and give those things time to grow. If they have real indigenous roots, they can go somewhere."
This tentative "domino theory" of democratic change in the Middle East could easily stoke fears of a new American imperialism in the region - and is one of the main reasons it is spoken of so rarely.
The precise reasons for the coming war, therefore, have been difficult to ascertain and the justifications advanced for it varied.
Just as opponents of the war have largely missed the bigger picture, so its proponents have played down the scale of the project America is poised to embark upon.
Anti-war critics cite an American desire to control Iraq's oil supplies, and a vow by President George W Bush to finish the job his father started and kill the man who tried to assassinate him as the real motive behind the conflict.
Mr Bush himself has offered different and perhaps contradictory reasons.
On some occasions, he has said removing Saddam is simply a continuation of the Gulf war of 1991. On others he has presented it as a pre-emptive action to stop the dictator developing nuclear weapons or passing weapons of mass destruction to al-Qa'eda.
Saddam's human rights abuses, his payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, his defiance of United Nations resolutions and a possible Iraqi link to the September 11 atrocities or the anthrax attacks that followed have also been thrown into the mix.
The dangers posed by the possible nexus between Saddam and terrorist groups such as al-Qa'eda, plus the post-September 11 desire to tackle potential threats before they can turn into mass murder, are prime factors for Mr Bush.
But the momentum behind the drive towards toppling Saddam has been provided by men who identified him as a danger nearly 25 years ago and who believe that "regime change" could help bring about a transformation of the whole region.
These include Paul Wolfowitz, a Pentagon official who is now the US deputy defence secretary. He was the author of a June 1979 paper that highlighted the growing military threat to the Gulf region posed by Saddam's Iraq.
Innocuously titled Capabilities for Limited Contingencies in the Persian Gulf, the paper remains classified to this day. More senior figures, however, believed revolutionary Iran was a greater danger - an analysis that prompted the sending of mixed signals to Saddam and eventually emboldened him to invade Kuwait in 1990.
After the Iran-Iraq war, during which the Reagan administration lent limited support to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, a State Department official who is now the White House's special envoy for the Iraqi opposition, argued that American backing for Saddam should be reassessed.
Five years ago, Mr Wolfowitz, Mr Khalilzad and 16 others, including Donald Rumsfeld, now the US defence secretary, penned a letter to President Bill Clinton. It stated that failing to move towards the "removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power" would "have a seriously destabilising effect on the entire Middle East".
Nine of those 16 currently hold senior positions in the Bush administration while a tenth, Richard Perle, is an influential outside adviser who chairs the Pentagon's defence policy board.
When Mr Bush was asked in the 1999 Republican primary debate what he would do if it were found Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction, he replied brusquely: "Take'm out." It sounded like Mr Bush had said "take him out" but when asked by the moderator to clarify his answer, he said: "Take out the weapons of mass destruction." Many suspected he had backtracked after first stating what he really felt.
Either way, it was clear Mr Bush had no desire to cleave to what one senior Bush administration official described recently as the "empty piety" of Mr Clinton's Iraq policy - or what is more neutrally termed "containment".
Whether the policy of "regime change" in Iraq - a phrase that was born on the further shores of conservative think-tanks in the 1990s and moved to the centre of Mr Bush's agenda last year - would have been pursued if it had not been for September 11 will remain one of history's imponderables. There is a strong possibility that Mr Bush would have eventually turned his attention to Saddam sooner or later. In any case, while America was still reeling from September 11, Mr Rumsfeld and Mr Wolfowitz told Mr Bush that dealing with Saddam would be an essential part of the war on terrorism.
The exact point at which Mr Bush decided Saddam would be ousted by military force if necessary is unclear but in a "Top Secret" document of Sept 17, 2001, he ordered that military planning for invading Iraq should begin.
A principal argument of those advisers who said Saddam had to go was that a free Iraq could be a beacon of hope for Arabs in the region. Its geographical position was crucial - it could be the centre of a sunflower in which the petals would be Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Iran.
The senior Bush administration official said that liberating Iraq could have a "transformational effect" on the Middle East and perhaps pave the way for a solution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"This is, I admit, slightly rhapsodic, but if Iraq really could emerge as the first real Arab democracy, and undoubtedly it's going to be Arab, it's going to be pro-Palestinian, it will, I think, have a very positive influence on the prospects of peace," he said.
Regarding Iran, he said: "If the Iraqis can demonstrate some success at building a representative government I think it's going to embolden those people who are demanding freedom."
And in Saudi Arabia "they'll have a little more space in which to pursue reforms if they don't have this guy breathing down their necks, threatening them every day, trying to penetrate their security services, possibly in league with their worst enemies".
The theory that underpins this is little short of revolutionary in terms of American foreign policy. US State Department diplomats - in common with their European counterparts - have traditionally favoured maintaining a balance of power.
In effect, this has often meant propping up corrupt regimes for fear of something worse and justifying this on the basis that Arab countries are not ready for democracy and rapid progress towards it could be dangerously destabilising.
Edward Walker, former US ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is a champion of this more traditional approach.
"If there's going to be democracy spreading in the Middle East region, it's going to come from places other than Iraq first," he said recently. What I've been told by the Bahraini government is they're afraid that the efforts in Iraq will set them back, because it will cause internal problems for them."
The senior Bush administration official conceded that there were risks involved in his scenario. "The Shah is a demonstration that it's possible to have worse dictatorships than the one you're living in." But the risks of inaction were almost certainly greater.
His cautionary note was echoed by another senior administration official who urged that the democracy project not be overstated and suggested that a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in a country like Egypt could be a headache for America.
"Are we planning a Jeffersonian democratic revolution in the Middle East?" he asked. "No. But I think there will be consequences." The thinkers who initiated the policy of regime change believe, on balance, that those consequences will be benign.
In this respect, Saddam's demise could signal the beginning of a grand American project to tackle the root causes of conflict in the region that spawned al-Qa'eda.