From Mon Oct 13 13:15:04 2003
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Where do we go from here?
Date: Mon, 13 Oct 2003 16:39:23 +0200 (CEST)

The Arab world after the occupation of Iraq: Where do we go from here?

By Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui, Le Monde diplomatique, October 2003

Unless sovereignty is restored to the Iraqis, a United States Security Council resolution will not get the United States out of trouble. Just a year before the presidential election, the US faces the first failures of the neoconservative strategy for democratising the Middle East. Can the Arab world take up the challenge?

BE CAREFUL what you ask for, you might get it, and the United States seems to have got what it asked for in Iraq: a quick military victory that eliminated Saddam Hussein and his threats (whatever they were), and a beachhead for its proclaimed project of remaking the Middle East on democratic lines. We have to recognise a fundamental, challenging fact: whatever we think of Washington's strategy for changing the Middle East, we cannot deny that it has a bold one, that mobilises its great power for its desired ends. If we don't like the strategy, we should produce our own, mobilising our strengths for our own agenda. But we also have to recognise an undeniable disparity in power. Most of the world opposed the war but could not stop it.

And poignantly, the Arab and Muslim world was unable to resist it, and is too feeble to muster the unity and strength of purpose needed to bring its concerns to the fore. The triumphal slogans of pan-Arab unity have given way to disillusioned recognition of debilitating political, social and military weakness. Until we can overcome that weakness, we will have to contend with an agenda set by others. With its conquest of Iraq, the US has set an agenda, with which it, and we, must now contend. Let us hope that Arabs will take the opportunity to shape this agenda in ways that help the region and its people.

We need to acknowledge that, from the point of view of a liberal, pragmatic and democratic Arab nationalism, much needs changing in the Middle East, starting with the brutal despotism exemplified by Saddam Hussein's regime. The stubborn refusal of democratic reform, the persistence of one-man or one-party political rule, the inability to solve severe economic and social problems, the increasing influence of fundamentalist and (related, but different) jihadist currents, the political situations polarised between fundamentalism and secular tyranny: all of these create a troubled landscape. There has hardly been enough movement for progressive change in this landscape, whether from regimes, elites or the street.

In a world fearful about unstable states and aggressive non-state actors, there is good reason to want change in Middle Eastern societies. There is no question that Osama Bin Laden and 11 September 2001 have brought these concerns to the forefront in the West, and the world. The Middle East seems to have replaced Europe as the centre of world politics —the fork in the world-historical road, where choices must soon be made that will shape the world's future. We shouldn't think of a battleground for a clash of civilisations, but of a forge in which new parameters of global tension and cooperation will be cast. The tools include ideas of legitimacy and international law, self-defence, national sovereignty, pre-emption, and the right to possess, brandish and use small-scale or massive violence to force outcomes.

Unsurprisingly, there is disagreement about the meaning of these terms, and the aims and methods they imply. For all its boldness, the attempt of the US to impose a direction on this historical process is riven with contradictions. The real effects of the project are likely to be incongruent with its proclaimed purposes. The most insistently repeated justifications for US intervention in Iraq, about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam's ties to al-Qaida and his reputed ability to threaten the world's most powerful country, are the least convincing explanations of what the war was about. The credibility of these warnings, never high in the international community, has now eroded so badly even in the US that it is hardly worth discussing. The administration's most ardent proponents of the war have admitted that they were more convenience than fact.

So we need another explanation for what the US thinks it will accomplish in Iraq. The record indicates that the conquest of Iraq is the first major step in a mission to redefine the geopolitical world and the role of the US in it. This mission was conceived before 11 September, although the crimes of that day gave it domestic political sanction in the US, and allowed it to be recast as an international war on terrorism.

The National Security Strategy (NSS) of the US was published in September 2002. Journalist William Pfaff has described it as an implicit American denunciation of the modern state order that has governed international relations since the Westphalian Settlement of 1648 meant to supersede the existing principle of international legitimacy. It says that if the US government unilaterally determines that a state is a future threat to America, the US will pre-emptively intervene in that state to eliminate the threat, if necessary by accomplishing regime change (1). To preserve the possibility of such pre-emptive action, the strategy advocates US dominance in every region of the world, and repeatedly insists that the US will act pre-emptively to forestall hostile acts by our adversaries and to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing military build-up in the hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the US (2).

This document is a blueprint for preserving the US as the sole superpower, for ensuring its unparalleled military strength, and thereby enforcing its political will in any region of the world. It seeks to forestall the emergence of states with enough local power—especially nuclear arms—to block US imperatives in any region. Iraq is a key country in a key region. The NSS also seeks to ensure that already powerful, nuclear-capable and potentially competitive nations —Russia or China—can never challenge the global hegemony of the US.

The war on Iraq is the culmination of a decade of intense intellectual and political work by a small group of neoconservatives (3), who have united with fundamentalist Christians and militarists in the new imperial coalition that has crystallised under the Bush presidency. It is the first implementation of a policy whose overall objective is to ensure US dominance in the world. In the Middle East, this strategy calls for changing the course of history in a radical direction that favours the adoption of US-style political and economic values, with the hope that complementary moral, cultural and even religious values will follow. In this scenario, the conquest of Iraq will interrupt the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. It will discourage support for Palestinian resistance and encourage the Palestinians and Arabs to submit to a peace plan. It will also put the US at the heart of Opec, ensuring oil price discipline and the centrality of the dollar as the world's settlement currency.

This is an audacious, even missionary vision. Scholars like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami have helped persuade the US government that the Arab world is in such decay that it will continually produce ever more virulent forms of anti-US terrorism, and that it is unable, or can no longer be expected, to reform itself. The crucial selling point of this strategy, after 11 September, is the promise that eliminating regimes like Saddam's and changing the political culture of the Middle East will prevent the spread of WMDs to al-Qaida-like extremist groups. In this way, it is construed as a defensive necessity.

The real threat comes from nuclear weapons, which require industrial and scientific resources that are less widespread and more easily monitored. But the US administration uses the description WMD in a way that surreptitiously confuses nuclear with biological and chemical weapons, although the latter have proven an ineffective means of mass destruction, and difficult to employ tactically.

These weapons, however, are much easier than nuclear weapons to produce and hide. Any Arab or Muslim country with a rudimentary chemical or bio-pharmaceutical industry can be targeted as a future threat that might supply WMDs to some terrorist group who would use them against the US or its allies. The nations of the Middle East are being told that reaching a certain level of industrial and scientific development will be considered a threat in itself, unless they are securely in the US camp. Although this strategy clearly requires limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, it abandons the internationally accepted methods of proliferation control through treaties in favour of the more aggressive, unilateralist and pre-emptive doctrine of counter-proliferation, which embraces the possession of and threat to use nuclear weapons by the US and its favoured allies.

Most disturbingly, the main vehicle for achieving the strategic objectives of the NSS is military force. If governments don't realign themselves appropriately, the US will do it for them, via unilaterally imposed regime change. Considerations of international law are dismissed. The ostensible humanitarian and progressive agenda remains a vague rhetorical addition to conquest. Indigenous political and social considerations are considered epiphenomenal problems that will solve themselves quickly after a demonstration of overwhelming power—which is the language they understand. Whole cultures will be quickly overwritten by the neoconservative narrative of liberalisation and democratisation in the wake of US military victory.

This is an aggressive project, and a big gamble on the efficacy of military technology. It is a project that the international community largely rejected, and that the US public, which is very shy of casualties, would not have accepted unless they had been sold the idea that there was a real threat and a real possibility of quick success. Proponents of this aggressive unilateralism knew that it would be hard to sell in the absence of some catastrophic and catalysing event, like a new Pearl Harbour (4). It was only the trauma of 11 September that persuaded so many to go along with it.

Anxiety about this zealous project among traditional sectors of the US foreign policy establishment persists, even if it has been effectively silenced for the moment. Everyone understands the potential to destabilise the Arab world. The Secretary of State to President George Bush Sr, Lawrence Eagleburger, said that if President Bush Jr decided he was going to turn the troops loose on Syria and Iran, even I would think that he ought to be impeached (5). But Iran and Syria and even Saudi Arabia are clearly in Bush's sights, targets for increasingly harsh and orchestrated criticism.

This tension between traditional and neoconservative foreign policy perspectives may soon be played out over these three countries. In Iran, traditionalists might like to cultivate ties with Iranian moderates to foster cooperation with the Shia in Iraq, negotiate a resolution of nuclear issues, and keep a stable supply of Iranian oil—while cultivating long-term reforms in the Iranian political system. They see Iran as a difficult military target, where favourable changes are in progress and need only be properly fostered.

Hard-line neoconservatives, however, have no patience with a prolonged strategy of accommodation with not-so-fundamentalist clerics, in the naive hope that they will keep their word to foreswear nuclear weapons. This presages an imminent confrontation over nuclear facilities scheduled to come online soon (see United States: the Strangelove doctrine, page 4).

In Syria, the US wants to end support for Palestinian militants and the Lebanese Hizbollah. Traditional foreign policy elements might be willing to negotiate over this in return for assurances over Syria's concerns about Lebanon, the Golan, and the stability of the Ba'ath regime. Hard-liners seem bent on confrontation, accusing Syria of being the new depot for Saddam's WMDs, if not Saddam himself. The threats intensify and have already led to a military incursion, despite the fact that Syria is acknowledged to have been one of the CIA's most effective intelligence allies in the fight against al-Qaida (6).

The Saudi case highlights the radical change in strategy that is at stake in this tension between conventional and neoconservative perspectives. Traditional oil-oriented conservatives have always nurtured close and protective relations with the Saudi monarchy, which has been, since a pact made with President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1945, the guarantor of US access to reasonably priced Middle East oil. Now there is constant pressure to get tough with Saudi Arabia for supporting Palestinian militancy and Islamic radicalism, along with vague accusations that the Saudi regime financed, or knew in advance, about the 11 September attacks. That Osama bin Laden and most of the hijackers were Saudis does indicate the dangerous aspects of radical Wahabism. While the US benignly neglected Wahabi proselytising worldwide in the context of cold war politics, neoconservatives now want the Saudi regime to dissociate itself from the Wahabism that has been the pillar of the legitimacy of Saudi rule.

Foreign policy moderates in the US and the world worry about the effects of such scattershot attacks, and fear that the immediate beneficiaries of crisis in the region will probably be radical fundamentalists. But hard-core neoconservatives do not shy away from upheaval. For them, short-term negative results will only highlight the undemocratic nature of regimes and societies that breed terrorism, and in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future (7) force the US into a deeper, wider confrontation with reactionary forces until a democratic culture prevails, or is imposed, across the Middle East.

But will the Iraq war change the course of history? And if so, to what effect? The occupation and reconstruction of Iraq is now a starting point. History shows how difficult it is to restore trust, build new institutions, and solicit participation from diverse groups in a multiethnic society under the control of a foreign power. In the Balkans, there was the advantage of a clear multilateral mandate, with a civilian administration that derived its authority from the world community through the United Nations. As a result, all sectors of the population could be persuaded to join in political reconstruction. Neither civilian nor military authorities became targets of resistance.

The US mission in Iraq, and its grander ambition for the Middle East, are on far shakier grounds. The US occupation of Iraq is the result of an invasion that most of the world condemned, that no social group in Iraq solicited, and that gutted Iraq's civil infrastructure. The occupation needs to prove its worth to the Iraqi people and the world from scratch. Yet the whole operation betrays a lack of preparation for anything beyond military strategy, as though Washington had expected to inherit the Ba'ath regime's infrastructure intact. Even the task of restoring security is beyond the competence of an army; it needs a network of structures from local police to national judiciary.

Given the post-war devastation and the grandiose objectives, this will require an enormous financial and human commitment. If the US persists in unilateralism, all this will have to be accomplished with its own resources. Yet half of the US army's combat forces are already in Iraq, and the cost of the war is now projected at $60bn a year. Iraqi oil revenues will not cover these costs for years, if ever. But no country will want to subsidise the US effort, especially while it retains political authority and control of Iraq's oil resources. US complacency about the diplomatic and political dimensions of this project threatens to force it to draw on its own human and material reserves to a prohibitive extent.

In this context, pleas for significant troop contributions have fallen on deaf ears, especially those allies from old Europe who were insulted during the build-up to the war. Frantically seeking burden-sharing with Third World and Muslim cover, the US is again turning to Turkey; Paul Wolfowitz, in a telling indication of his commitment to democracy, scolded Turkey's military for not sending troops at the start, despite the Turkish parliament's vote against their deployment.

With attacks against US troops persisting, it becomes both more imperative and more difficult to get other nations involved. But the fate of the US intervention will be determined primarily by the responses of the important social factors in Iraq. At the moment, there is widespread anger at the breakdown of the social infrastructure, and impatience with any US attempt to retain ultimate political power after a short period. There are constant demonstrations and calls for an end to occupation. The deaths of whole families at checkpoints and in sweeps have become commonplace. Sporadic but intensifying armed resistance has emerged. It is clear even to US soldiers that they are now perceived more as occupiers than liberators.

Both sides seem ambivalent about how much power to assert. US authorities cancel local elections and then quickly assemble a representative Iraq Governing Council (IGC). Some Iraqis, and most Shia, adopt a wait-and-see attitude, while others assassinate collaborators. We cannot know how widespread and well-organised the armed resistance will become, although it is foolish to assume that it is limited to Saddam loyalists. We do not know what factors will determine the level of upheaval; whether the infrastructure is restored, whether basic social needs are met, whether political power is in the hands of Iraqis, and whether the ethnic, tribal, regional and religious groups feel fairly treated.

The Kurds, effectively self-governed since 1991, begin as US allies holding in check their own potentially divisive agenda. The Sunnis, who have lost their dominance, start out resentful. Secularised Muslims are wary of the potential for Islamicisation. The Shia, 60% of the population, who were repressed under Saddam, have the most to gain from a new political order and might be expected to favour the US intervention.

This socio-political landscape means that no US plan for a pacified unitary Iraq can succeed without the co-operation of the Shia. Resistance against the US is unlikely to succeed if it does not include the Shia, and no resistance that includes the Shia can be repressed by the US without destroying both Iraq and any pretence of moral and political legitimacy. But Shia domination would threaten to split the country, pushing the Kurds towards autonomy, and alienating Sunni, Christian, and secularised Iraqis. The fate of the US project for Iraq and for the whole Middle East stands or falls on a precise balance of support and self-restraint by the Shia.

The US-appointed Iraq Governing Council, with its Shia majority, has become the hoped-for vehicle of co-operative national reconstruction. But the larger Shia community is ambivalent and impatient. The ayatollahs of Najaf, Shia Islam's holiest city, have expressed, with different emphases, limited tolerance of the US presence.

Ayatollah Sistani, the most revered member of Najaf's council of Islamic clerics (the Hawza al- Ilmiya) has always been committed to Shia rule and has issued a fatwa demanding that Iraqis, not US authorities, choose members of a constitutional drafting committee, and that any constitution be put to a vote. Ayatollah Baqer al-Hakim leads the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (Sairi), a group with its own military wing, the Badr Brigade, which was based in Iran during Saddam's rule. This group, with ties to Iran, to Kurdish opposition groups and to Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, is participating in the IGC. The wild card is Muqtada al-Sadr, son of a revered cleric assassinated by Saddam. Muqtada's charisma and militancy resonate among the young and poor. He mobilises large demonstrations, where, with messages of support from Iran, he denounces the feeble IGC, the US, Saddam and colonialism, and calls for Iranian-style clerical rule and an Islamic army. But he avoids calling for violent resistance, which is not endorsed by the Hawza.

Questions remain about Shia tolerance to continuing US occupation, and about how demands for secular-democratic versus clerical-theocratic rule will be resolved within the Shia community, as well as between that community, other Iraqi groups and the US authorities. Indeed, in soliciting Shia support, the US risks promoting fundamentalism.

In Baghdad's poor neighbourhood, formerly Saddam city, now Sadr city, clerics and militias associated with Muqtada have been helping to restore order, financed by bricks of dinars from US forces. Their methods include calling for the torching of cinemas, the beating of alcoholic drinks vendors and men who refuse to grow beards, the veiling of all women including Christians, and the killing of unveiled and sinful women (8).

These are images that cause fear of a replay of Iran or Afghanistan. Replacing Saddam with the rule of the ayatollahs would jeopardise the unity of the Iraqi state, empower transnational Shia fundamentalism, and spell political disaster for the US. The tension between the US claim that it seeks only to enable Iraqi democracy, and its real need to control the agenda and outcome, is nowhere more evident than in the Shia conundrum. But what can the US refuse the Shia, who only have to hold back to make trouble?

The US cannot allow Iraq to drift the way of Afghanistan, a troubling precedent. Afghanistan and the Balkans demonstrate how much easier it is to defeat an army than to build a nation, let alone to transform the culture of a region. The neoconservative imperial project is based on a critique of contemporary Arab political culture, and fear of its extremist currents, some of which resonates among pragmatic Arabs. But the remedy must, as the US claims it will, go beyond conquest. The complexity, pluralism, and stubborn cultural independence of a people cannot be abolished by a theory imported from afar.

The desperately needed democratisation of the Middle East requires political intelligence and moral imagination; it requires supporting the forces in the region that have been courageously working toward that end: dissidents and journalists who risk their lives and freedom every day, Islamic reformers who defend the compatibility of Islam and democracy against extremists, women's groups, unions and civil society organisations who fight for the right to organise and promote their ideas. It requires understanding that peaceful Islamic political movements are not necessarily violent jihadists, and that there is no reason why the former cannot be integrated into national pol itics, just as Christian Democrats are in Europe.

Any outside power that wants to intervene in the region for the sake of democracy must listen and speak to these forces, must respect and cooperate with them in fashioning political, social, and economic solutions to the problems they experience. These are the troops that will win the war of democracy, and be the most effective bulwark against jihadist extremism. It is they, and not a small cadre in Washington, who must lead the battle for reform in the Middle East.

Instead of listening to and supporting these indigenous reform movements, however, the US persists in allying itself with the authoritarian governments that smother them. In the name of a war on terrorism, it is now reinforcing the most repressive state apparatuses, and turning a blind eye to arbitrary incarceration of Islamists. If Arab reformers are to take seriously the US commitment to democracy, let alone go along with a policy of conquest, the US cannot continue to encourage mass arrests and torture.

If moderate Arab nationalists are to take seriously the US concern about the fate of Arab culture, or the threat of WMD, the US has to stop uncritically supporting an aggressive, nuclear-armed Israel, and has to insist on a peace plan that addresses Palestinian anger over occupation and settlements as much as Israeli concern for security.

Given the genealogy of the neoconservative agenda, this is perhaps the change of US policy we are least likely to see. But if the grand regional strategy, post-Iraq, becomes a means for forcing further injustice on the Palestinians, it will be seen by many Arabs, with reason, as another means to accommodate Israeli intransigence. If Arabs are to take seriously the US commitment to self-determination, then democracy in Iraq cannot be expected to yield the same result as submission.

If the US cannot demonstrate this much respect for the region it claims to want to reform, then, outside a small radius of think tanks and compliant media outlets in Washington, and certainly among the people of the Middle East, it will be obvious that the US policy is politically and ethically in contradiction with itself.

The crux is that there is only one very-difficult-to-achieve outcome that will attain the strategic objective of the US in Iraq: a relatively quick transition to an unoccupied, unified, democratic and non-theocratic state. Only that result will make the Middle East and the world safer and more accommodating for the US. Only that result will provide what the grand neoconservative strategy claimed to seek from this war: a base from which to advance both US geopolitical interests and the further democratisation of the Arab world.

That outcome would require an atypical commitment by the US to accept continuing casualties and to spend huge sums improving Iraqis' lives while the US faces cutbacks. Yet, any of the likelier, lesser outcomes—a break-up of the state, widespread misery, unrest or resistance, prolonged foreign occupation, the rise of fundamentalism or of any authoritarian regime—will be perceived as, and will be, a grave political failure.

Arab states, and all the weak but developing nations that are potential targets of regime change, need to find their own ways to seize the political and moral initiative. Designed for the cold war, old international structures like the UN, the Arab League and the non-aligned movement are not working. The US precedent of pre-emptive war threatens to become a norm in conflicts throughout the world.

To prevent this, we need new structures of international solidarity that go beyond the traditional parameters of inter-governmental relations. We need an initiative of independent nations whose members commit to abiding by the standards of international law in their disputes with each other, to condemning and withholding all support (bases, overflight rights) from pre-emptive military action by others in contravention of international law, and to a thoroughgoing process of democratic reform, even if it means self-inflicted regime change. This must be more than a treaty organisation; it must be a forum for democratic self-reform, and, in the Muslim world, for Islamic self-reform.

By winning the war in Iraq, the US has put us all to the test. If Iraq does not become, as promised, a stable pole that catalyses the democratisation of the Middle East, the US will be weaker, its citizens in more danger, and the prospects for reform in the Arab world more problematic. And if Iraq and other Arab states do not find their own ways to democracy and popular legitimacy, the results will be just as disastrous.

Given these parameters, the prospects for success on the terms the US has set for itself, and for the world, are precarious. Whatever the US asked for in conquering Iraq, this is what it, and we, have got.


(1) William Pfaff, International Herald Tribune, 3 October 2002. See also Henry Kissinger, Iraq Poses Most Consequential Foreign-Policy Decision for Bush, Chicago Tribune, 11 August 2002.

(2) Idem.

(3) See Philip S Golub, United States: inventing demons, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, March 2003.

(4) 2000 PNAC (Project for the New American Century) report.

(5) Lawrence Eagleburger: Bush Should Be Impeached If He Invades Syria or Iran,, 14 April 2003.

(6) Seymour M Hersh, The Syrian Bet: Did the Bush Administration burn a useful source on Al Qaeda?, The New Yorker, 28 July 2003.

(7) Jeffrey Bell, quoted by Joshua Micah Marshall in Practice to Deceive, The Washington Monthly Online, April 2003.

(8) Susan Sachs, After the War: Baghdad; Shi'ite Leaders Compete to Govern an Iraqi Slum, The New York Times, 25 May 2003.