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Freedom for Iraq, Iran, and Syria
It is not clear that the United States government has thought through a post-Saddam Iraq, let alone a post-Saddam Middle East. For the removal of Saddam Hussein be a meaningful exercise for the future of the Arab world (and more than a temporary salve to US national security concerns), clarity of purpose and a willingness to commit diplomatic, political and military capital is imperative.
The most urgent requirement of regime change is that it indeed be regime change. Saddam’s entire Ba’athist government must be replaced. If he is removed in a palace coup, the US will have failed in all but its most immediate goals. Worse yet, we will have undercut our nascent commitment to democracy in the region and affirmed what many already suspect Washington doesn’t mind dictatorial thugs, as long as they are our dictatorial thugs.
The US and Iraq’s neighbors must face up to the fact that if any semblance of representative democracy is to take hold in Iraq, it will likely result in a Shi’a dominated government the first Shi’a Arab government in the Middle East. Sunnis have governed from Baghdad from time immemorial, and the political and psychological adjustment to Shi’a Arab rule could well be difficult. The Shi’a are viewed by many particular among the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia as Muslim apostates. More importantly, they are seen as a challenge to the political status quo.
The (Sunni) Riyadh government has spent time and energy quelling its own Shi’a population which predominates in the oil-rich eastern province. The Bahraini leadership also Sunni has also invested great effort in squelching its own large (70 percent) Shi’a population.
Despite ample evidence to the contrary, many in the Gulf believe that Shi’ites are the secret pro-Iran fifth column, and that empowerment of the Shi’a is tantamount to Iranian hegemony in the region.
It will be no easy matter to manage the power shifts inside Iraq, or to predict how those shifts will affect the rest of the region. And there are other management issues: Kurds, the other great dispossessed people of Iraq, must also be accepted into the regional power structure.
Ideally, the US will assist the Iraqi people in fashioning a government that allows for a degree of Kurdish regional autonomy but does not divide Iraq into ethnic enclaves that may sooner or later go to war.
Apart from the likely Turkish and Iranian objections to a Kurdish mini-state, an ethnically divided Iraq will begin a spiral of claims and counter-claims for power and resources which will be impossible to resolve.
The Iraqi author Kanan Makiya has written eloquently on the need to “put a premium on the equality of citizenship for all” in any new Iraqi state.
Finally, we must insist that the new government of Iraq begin to consider the process of privatizating its national oil companies. The concentration of economic power in the hands of the state and the center of the state at that vests excesses of power in the hands of whoever sits atop Baghdad.
Even a division of economic power along federal lines will mean the rise of local autocrats.
Rapid privatization, some argue, will be an unbearable shock to the Iraqi public. The technical and practical requirements may indeed dictate a gradual process of state divestment of its assets. But the empowerment of the Iraqi people over the state will mean that the leadership cannot have the whip hand over the nation’s main resource.
If all goes well and it is a mighty “if” we can have a new, democratic Iraq in which the people do not define themselves by their hostility to the state and the state does not define itself by hostility to its neighbors.
Such an Iraq could, in theory, be led by any Iraqi whether Sunni, Shi’a, Kurd, Turkoman or Assyrian. But what, if anything, will that mean for the rest of the Middle East?
In a best-case scenario, one might predict that Iran is the nation most likely to be affected by any tumult in Iraq. Iranian students and labor unions have been demonstrating against the government with increasing violence. Clerics have been emboldened to criticize not just the government, but the nature of Iranian theocracy itself. Most observers believe that the fatal combination of economic failure and repression will doom Iran’s fundamentalist regime.
Iran will not require an Iraq-style military intervention; student groups and others need only a demonstration of American commitment to democracy in their region. If we can provide that demonstration in Iraq, that success alone should give Iran’s dissidents the required political firepower to topple the mullahs.
Consider then that the superpowers of the Gulf, so long in the hands of terrorists and dictators, are suddenly sidelined. We will quickly find that democracies even ones in the midst of development are uninterested in neighborhood power games.
Neither Iran nor Iraq may be eager to embrace Israel, nor to immediately renounce the terror groups who have found homes in Baghdad and Teheran. But a democracy interested in joining the community of nations will no longer be able to accept the stigma of “state sponsor” of terror. Nor will weapons of mass destruction to menace Israel, Europe and the US hold the same appeal.
With Iran and Iraq focused on domestic responsibilities, many have expressed the hope that the House of Saud would be the next to crumble. That is highly unlikely. The Saudi regime is not popular at home or abroad, but it does not rule through terror.
Dissenters are on the outlying fringes of Saudi politics, advocating sterner Islamic anti-Western rule rather than democratic reform. Until there is a dissent movement in Saudi Arabia that proposes a better alternative for the people, it is unlikely to gather steam. Saudi Arabia is the sclerotic old man of the Middle East, desperately afraid of change or reform, destined to decline slowly rather than keel over dead.
Instead, the more fragile ruler is the little Assad of Damascus, leader of the other failed Ba’ath party of the Middle East. When he succeeded his father, Bashar Assad promised a new openness for Syria. He rapidly instituted a series of reforms, and within months rapidly repealed most of them. Assad has clearly decided that absent his father’s shrewd ability to manage hostile neighbors and competing interests at home, the best recipe is an iron hand.
However, the key ingredient that has allowed Bashar Assad to manage Syria has been a large infusion of ill-gotten cash from Baghdad. Syria is now the primary destination for illicit Iraqi oil sales and the main conduit for illegally procured imports. The resulting bonanza has allowed Assad to gloss over his fumbling management of foreign and domestic policy.
Once Saddam and the attendant sanctions on him have evaporated, Syria will have little appeal as a broker of Iraqi oil, goods and services. There is a great difference between a wealthy tinpot dictator and a broke tinpot dictator; Assad’s grip on power will be must less sure.
If he is clever, he will revert to plan A and begin a process of internal reform. Sadly, he is more likely to fumble with thuggery until domestic opponents put him out of business. The US would do well to begin cultivating a Syrian opposition movement to replace Assad once he falls.
And thus the vision of a new Middle East: free Iraq, free Iran, free Syria.
Terrorists will find their financing disappear, just as North Korea and China will find their markets for missiles and nuclear weapons evaporate.
Is it too much to hope for? Perhaps. But it would do policymakers in Washington well to remember that just as Iraq could be a model for the new Middle East, so too could a failure in Iraq set back by decades efforts to reform the old and dangerous Middle East.
Danielle Pletka is the vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at AEI.
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