Walk a Levantine street these days and you will bump into a historical irony. As the Bush administration prepares to attack Iraq, Arabs say the U.S. is behaving like a classical imperial power that aims to reshape the Middle East. The only problem is that the system the Arabs want to safeguard was drawn up by European imperialists over eighty years ago.
This is a good time for grand schemes in Washington. Not since the late 1940s, when the Cold War began, have ideologues of global American power been so influential. At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. did not use its status as solitary superpower to engage in vast geopolitical engineering on the old European imperial model. That could soon change in the Middle East.
It wouldn't be the first time for the region. After the First World War, France and Britain carved up much of the Middle East between themselves according to what is known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. In demarcating the territories under their control, they also drew the borders of the modern Middle East. To this day boundary agreements are resolved by referring back to the maps and notes of now-forgotten imperial civil servants.
Although the push for a new American order in the Middle East has been given momentum by the September 11 attacks, some of the Bush administration's most commanding figures have been laying the groundwork for years. In May 1990, then secretary of defense Dick Cheney asked Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz, respectively chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and deputy defense secretary, to prepare separate papers on America's foreign policy role after the Cold War. Nicholas Lemann, who has written about the episode, notes that Cheney favored the Wolfowitz recommendations, where, essentially, "the Pentagon envisioned a future in which the United States could, and should, prevent any other nation or alliance from becoming a great power."
In its advocacy of American unilateralism and supremacy, the document sanctioned grand foreign policy scheming on a scale rarely contemplated in United States history. How significant is such a blueprint today? It reflects the worldview of two of the Bush administration's leading decision-makers, Cheney and Wolfowitz, as well as that of the defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, national security advisor Condoleeza Rice, and the numerous officials working under them who run the national security bureaucracy.
For a useful insight into administration thinking on the region, refer back to a 1996 paper entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," prepared for the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, an Israeli think-tank. The paper was written by a group that included Richard Perle, who now heads the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, and Douglas Feith, current under-secretary of policy at the Defense Department.
"Securing the Realm" focused on recommendations to the incoming government of Benjamin Netanyahu, but one theme running throughout the paper was the parallels in Israeli and U.S. interests in the Middle East. The authors called on Israel to "work closely with Turkey and Jordan to contain, destabilize, and roll-back some of its most dangerous threats." Among the new measures Israel should adopt were "containing and even rolling back Syria", backing "the [Jordanian] Hashemites in their efforts to redefine Iraq", and cooperating "with the U.S. to counter real threats to the region and the West's security."
According to political commentator Brian Whitaker, administration hawks believe "that President Bush has already accepted their plan and made destabilization of 'despotic regimes' a central goal of his foreign policy." Though Whitaker expands on this thesis to claim that it is the pro-Israelis in the administration who are pushing hardest for war in Iraq, mainly to advance Israel's interests, this explanation is insufficient. Absent Bush's personal inclinations, the grand schemers would be left holding their position papers.
The Middle East buries grand regional ambitions. British and French imperialism, couched in a supposedly less venal Mandate system announced at the San Remo Conference in 1920, collapsed ignominiously after the Second World War. Its most enduring legacies were the region's present borders, anti-Western suspicion, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Arab nationalism, another grand scheme, fared no better. In striving for unity, the advocates of a common Arab destiny not only sought to alter a regional state system whose fractiousness, they felt, was provoked by European colonialism; they also sought to amass the political and military strength needed to reverse the defeat of the Palestinians. Today a shuffling phantom, Arab nationalism was mortally injured in the June 1967 war, when Israel defeated Jordan, Syria and Egypt, and occupied their land. Arab frailty, particularly on the Palestinian question, was exposed. By the 1980s, the vacuum left behind by Arab nationalism was being filled by diverse Islamisms, generating, for once, notable victories, whether against the U.S. in Iran or the USSR in Afghanistan.
For the United States to succeed in reshaping a region where others have foundered, it must avoid a metastasizing conflict once troops are in Iraq. This is particularly pertinent with respect to Iran. Yet the logic of American intervention leads in the opposite direction. If possession of nuclear weapons is a reason for going after Saddam, then the same holds for Iran. Nor can the Bush administration disregard the fact that a weakened Iraq will mainly benefit Iran, which would find no major adversary in the Persian Gulf, unless the U.S. fills the gap.
This was the conclusion reached by the author Michael Ledeen, an influential supporter of regime change in the Middle East. He recently argued in the National Review that the administration, would "sooner or later, in one way or another...have to deal with Iran." He concluded by telling the administration: "Faster, please. What the hell are you waiting for?"
Widening the Middle East conflict would mean a long occupation of Iraq, if only as a base for continuing operations. The assumption that undemocratic regimes in Iran and Syria would collapse because of the proximity of U.S. forces seems fanciful. If anything, both regimes will likely be strengthened by the perceived threat from outside, and domestic dissenters will pipe down to avoid violent backlashes. Nor will traditional U.S. allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, support a long-term presence in Iraq—particularly when things begin going wrong—if this is seen as a way of imposing a new order that marginalizes them.
The U.S. might be able to buy time if it satisfies a third requirement, namely resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other outstanding disputes between Israel and the Arab states. As in 1991, a Gulf conflict might lead to advances in regional negotiations. However, a problem the grand schemers will have to resolve is their deep contempt for the Oslo accords and their persistence in seeing the Palestinian problem merely as an Israeli security concern. Ironically, Oslo, in exchanging land for peace, provided the only possible outlet to Palestinians and Israelis. Neither the Israeli right nor American grand schemers have yet offered a viable alternative.
Finally, the U.S. will have to employ its most potent weapon in the region, its liberal ideal. In their appetite for power, the grand schemers have downplayed less martial mechanisms for change in the Middle East. This will be the ultimate U.S. challenge: to resist the temptation of hegemony when everything invites it, and to focus instead on seeking other ways to promote open societies in the region. That will mean, for starters, avoiding turning Iraq into a captive oil market, while also establishing a genuinely democratic yet stable government there. Afghanistan is proving a mouthful; Iraq may be an impossibility.
It would be absurd if the U.S., in order to transform the Middle East and rely less on the outdated despots it sustained for so long, resorts to an outdated imperialism that failed the European powers. Yet that seems to be the favored course of the Bush administration, or at least of the administration's most influential policymakers.
Emperors from Alexander to Julian headed eastwards, into the ancient Middle East and beyond, to fulfill their dreams of becoming Asian princes. They were swallowed up by the vastness ahead of them. The U.S. may want to heed that message as it embarks on its first imperial venture since the end of the Cold War.