A `victory' plan that empowers extremists

December 19, 2006|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- Neither elections nor policy reviews have yet prodded President Bush into adopting a reality-based approach to Iraq or the Mideast.

The president still talks of "victory" in Iraq as he rejects the proposals of the Iraq Study Group and delays presenting his new Iraq plan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists we have reached a Mideast "clarifying moment" that will impel Arab moderates to line up against the extremists.

Meantime, Arab extremists are making dangerous gains that will multiply next year unless the White House deals with the Mideast we have, not the Mideast of dreams. In the Mideast we have, moderates are losing ground to extremists, and American policy has strengthened the Islamists' hand.

This perverse outcome can be traced back to the nature of the Bush Doctrine that the White House adopted in response to 9/11. The president wanted to radically transform Arab culture. He proposed installing democracy in Iraq by force and assumed Iraq would inspire upheavals in neighboring countries. This lovely goal ignored the absence in the region of civic institutions and the strength of Islamists.

To the White House's surprise, Islamists did extremely well in virtually all of the Arab elections we promoted. Think Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the Shiite and Sunni religious parties that now govern in Iraq.

U.S. policy continues to undercut moderate Arab opponents of Hezbollah and Hamas, or of Iraqi firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. The administration still misunderstands the realities of Iraqi politics so badly that its new Iraq plan may strengthen the extremists rather than stabilize Iraq. In Lebanon, Mr. Bush praised Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the "cedar revolution" that elected reformers to power. Yet, the White House betrayed Mr. Siniora last summer during Israel's bombing war against Hezbollah, by rejecting his pleas for a cease-fire just when Hezbollah was reeling.

Mr. Siniora thought the moment was right to isolate Hezbollah within the Lebanese political spectrum. But U.S. officials wanted Israel to score a military knockout against Hezbollah (and thus its ally Iran). They wanted transformation.

Instead, Hezbollah survived nicely, and Mr. Siniora's government was undercut by the destruction wreaked by the bombing. Hezbollah is on the verge of achieving political control of Lebanon.

With the Palestinians, the White House failed to support, with more than words, the Fatah party of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - and then was astonished by Hamas' victory. Flummoxed by the election results, the Bush team has left the Palestinian issue to fester.

In Iraq, decisions about the number of U.S. troops and when to turn security over to Iraqis will be rendered meaningless unless the White House can grasp Iraqi political realities. Without a unified, functional government, Iraqi forces will splinter and join the civil war; the country will become a terrorist haven, irrespective of American troops.

Yet the White House continues to talk about strengthening the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as if Iraq were really a democracy. The administration's idea is to help Mr. Maliki form a "new political bloc" of moderates, including Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, which would supposedly isolate Mr. Sadr and his militia. Then the moderates together could fight Sunni insurgents.

But Iraq is not a democracy as we know it. Mr. Maliki, a weak leader, fears that such a bloc might unseat him. He won't turn against his backer Mr. Sadr, nor will he fight Mr. Sadr's 60,000-strong militia.

Iraqi Shiite politicians tell me that their religious parties will not fight each other at a time when they need to be fighting the Sunni insurgents who are bombing their people.

So any U.S. hope of promoting a strong Maliki government, or of vanquishing Mr. Sadr's militia, is a mirage. Either the United States helps the Shiites fight Sunni insurgents, or we get out of the way.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

Clarence Page's column will return Friday.

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