The intense political focus on Iraq in the United States continues to revolve around the theme of how soon the U.S. might be able to substantially withdraw its troops. Democrats who won a majority in the Congress last November have run up against the limits of their slim majority. Their lack of a two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto means they are unable to force changes in George W. Bush’s policy in Iraq.
The tenor and narrow focus of the public debate here in the United States accurately reflect the general public sentiment that has been shaped by the administration’s policy. This holds that the United States has removed a brutal dictator, given the Iraqi people an opportunity to embrace freedom and democracy, and the noble job is done. The main theme that dominates discussions about Iraq here these days is about the feuding Iraqis who seem unable to forge a national consensus or a government that promote reconciliation and power-sharing.
There is no significant questioning of either the moral, legal and political right of the United States to invade Iraq, or of the repercussions of that move. The larger questions of what the American adventure in Iraq has done to the entire Middle East remain largely unaddressed here, at a time when those larger issues assert themselves more clearly in the Middle East itself. If the United States plans to maintain large numbers of troops in Iraq for many years — a distinct possibility, as evidenced by American troops in South Korea and Germany, half a century after wars there — then a whole new political and security dynamic emerges and needs to be considered.
The long-term presence of U.S. troops, following the demise of Baathist Iraq, means that the security architecture in the Middle East will reflect the balance of power among four principal parties: the United States, Israel, Iran and Turkey. For the Arab world, this is an enormous problem and an embarrassment. The security system for the Arab world is being defined and maintained almost totally by non-Arab powers, including several that have been hostile to Arab interests.
One problem with this situation is already evident, as we witness the United States, Israel and Iran, among others, fight their battles in Lebanon and Palestine through local proxies. Recent events indicate how the different conflicts and confrontations in the Middle East have become linked. Events in one area could easily trigger clashes or even war in other areas, or across the board.
The recent Israeli air attack against northern Syria remains shrouded in mystery. Reports suggest, without confirmation, that the attack was aimed at some sort of facility related to the production or storage of weapons of mass destruction — with possibly a North Korean or Iranian link. The very close ties among Syria, Iran and Hizbullah mean that any attack against one of them could trigger responses by the others. Hamas also has close ties to these three.
With Iraq out of the way, Israel sees Iran and Syria (to a lesser extent) as its main strategic threats. Iran’s nuclear program is something that Israel, the United States, Europe and others say they cannot live with. A military strike to set back the Iranian nuclear program remains very likely during the last months of the Bush administration. Iranian senior military commanders said this week they have plans to strike at Israel if they are attacked. If Syria is attacked or threatened, it is likely to use Lebanon as an arena for retaliation against Israeli and American interests.
The American attack on Iraq seems to have triggered a sense among some parties in the region — Syria, Iran and friends — that fresh American or Israeli threats must be countered, or pre-empted, by decisive military and political resistance. No party in the region can credibly take on the United States militarily, but the Iraq situation and Hizbullah’s performance in last summer’s war both suggest that powerful militaries can be checked or even defeated, if one has the perseverance to stand one’s ground and fight.
Some of the parties in the Middle East will fight to the finish, because they feel they are engaged in an existential battle for their survival. Turkey is concerned primarily about the situation of the Kurds in neighboring states, but Israel, Iran and the United States take a wider view of security issues in the region. When not a single Arab state is directly involved in promoting stability across the region via a balance of power among the key military powers, this leaves the Arab world as a hapless arena for proxy battles by Israel, the U.S. and Iran. This situation is totally untenable, and cannot be sustained for long. Some state or non-state force within the Arab world will emerge in the years to come to fill this vacuum of Arab power and influence.
Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist. ©2007 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global.