Before it boils over

May 20, 2004|By Anthony H. Cordesman

WASHINGTON - The United States faces a growing crisis in the Middle East.

The situation in Iraq is deteriorating. The United States is becoming steadily more unpopular and its moral position has been undermined because of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Much of the Arab and Islamic world sees America as imperialist and anti-Islamic, and friendly regimes are becoming steadily more uncertain about the risks in supporting Washington.

The United States has no simple or instant fixes, but three things need to be done immediately:

First, no issue drives Arab and Islamic perceptions of the United States as much as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. U.S. peace efforts are perceived as weak and dishonest, and the United States is viewed as having become little more than Israel's proxy. This perception alienates regional moderates and reformers, aids Islamist extremists and terrorists and undermines pro-U.S. governments.

The United States must understand it cannot improve its overall position in the region without giving the highest priority to revitalizing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and demonstrating the credibility of its efforts to the Arab world and Europe.

This does not mean abandoning Israel's vital interests or tolerating Palestinian terrorism. But it does mean the United States must accept that it is dealing with failed Israeli and Palestinian regimes and that steady and visible U.S. pressure is needed on both governments. It also means decisive action to halt the expansion of Israeli settlements and those Israeli security measures that do more to make a Palestinian state impractical or impossible than truly aid Israeli security.

Second, the United States must build on steps it is already taking in Iraq. It needs to push the transfer of power along the lines proposed by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and dump the Iraqi Governing Council, particularly its most unpopular members, such as Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi.

It must recognize that a new government must be as inclusive as possible, including many ex-Baathists and Shiite Islamists. There can be no real progress, or security solution, without a broad-based government that various Iraqi factions see as legitimate and chosen by the people.

The United States cannot abandon its military effort to bring security, but it must train and equip Iraqi security forces and militias that can aid security. It must seek as much U.N. and international aid as possible and give the new security forces control over Iraqi cities as quickly as trained cadres emerge.

Above all, the new Iraqi government must play a major and visible role in Iraqi security and be consulted in all big military operations. Its legitimacy will never be credible without this.

The United States must also abandon its effort to rule through a major new embassy and to transform the Iraqi economy through U.S.-chosen projects driven by U.S. contractors. Aid must go directly to Iraqis through the Iraqi central and local governments or through U.S. military-run programs that supplement bullets with dollars. Aid must be focused on visible and immediate progress and not some idealized future. U.S. "management" should consist of demands that programs avoid corruption and produce clear benefits. The Iraqis must shape their own economic destiny.

Finally, the Bush administration must accept that it is too unpopular to issue a U.S.-led greater Middle East initiative.

American calls for regionwide reform and democracy are viewed as hypocritical and tailored to creating regimes friendly to the United States and Israel. Such an initiative will do more to undermine local reformers and label them as American tools than to push reform forward.

This does not mean abandoning reform, but it means that the United States should avoid anything that smacks of unilateralism. It should seek a common approach with the European Union and Arab League. It should stop pressing for regionwide solutions such as instant democracy in a region with almost no effective moderate political parties and where elections could mean radicalism and revolution.

The United States should instead address critical issues such as economic reform, job creation, better income distribution, reduction of population growth and the advancement of human rights and the rule of law to allow conditions for democracy to emerge. It should work with friendly regimes and local reformers, with approaches tailored to conditions in each country. Rather than grandiose rhetoric, it should use strengthened embassy teams and the State Department to implement constant pressure for evolutionary reform.

There is no reason to abandon U.S. goals and ideals, cut and run in Iraq or ease up on the struggle against terrorism. But the United States must abandon the surrealist illusions of those neoconservatives who have done so much to undermine U.S. interests and who substitute impractical or impossible goals for what really must be done.

What is needed is realism and pragmatism and a willingness to work with, not around, the governments, reformers and peoples in the Middle East that should and can be U.S. allies.

Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has just returned from a conference on the future of region in Kuwait.

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