Sunday, January 04, 2004


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By William Fisher

Second-guessing is always easy and should be avoided whenever possible. This is particularly true in the dynamic and ambiguous world of geopolitics. But sometimes one cannot resist. The year-end message of Secretary of State Colin Powell makes this one of those times.

The principal reason is that Secretary Powell’s message is unabashedly self-congratulatory. The year just ended is wrapped in red ribbon, bright and attractive. There were no missteps, no errors, no mistakes, no misguided priorities, no missed opportunities.

The Bush Administration, the Secretary writes, can review the past and plan the future “with confidence because President George W. Bush's vision is clear and right: America's formidable power must continue to be deployed on behalf of principles that are simultaneously American, but that are also beyond and greater than ourselves.”

A substantial part of Powell’s message predictably focuses on Iraq and Afghanistan. “The Afghan people”, he writes, “…now have a constitution, a rapidly advancing market economy and new hope as they look toward national elections. “

The facts on the ground are a lot messier. As of yesterday, Afghanistan does indeed have a draft constitution. But Amnesty International reports that intimidation and fear of retribution have prevented some delegates from participating freely. “Dominance by strong political and armed factional leaders and the absence of the rule of law in many parts of the country contributes to an atmosphere of insecurity for delegates who wish to act independently of powerful political groups. Some delegates fear for their safety of their families and for their own lives, especially after they return home at the end of the CLJ,” Amnesty says.

The country’s “rapidly advancing market economy”, cited by Secretary Powell, is in fact being led by poppy production. The Karzai Government controls virtually nothing outside Kabul, the warlords have become uneasy allies, the US has failed to provide anything approaching the magnitude of funding originally promised, and there is much evidence of the resurgence of the Taliban. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, in the wake of 9/11, the US invaded this country, overthrew the Taliban government and then, effectively, walked away – to Iraq – leaving Afghanistan looking pretty much like the moonscape it found there.

On Iraq, the Secretary writes, “The aspirations of a free and talented Iraqi nation are also taking wing, now that Saddam Hussein's murderous regime is no more…We are working to return sovereignty to the Iraqi people through a fair and open process and to ensure that the country receives the maximum feasible debt relief. As the Coalition Provisional Authority closes its doors on June 30…we will open an embassy in Baghdad.”

We are all happy that Saddam Hussein was captured. But Howard Dean is right: we are no safer today than we were before his capture. Insurgency did not collapse. There may be fewer attacks on Coalition forces, but US military spokesmen note they are becoming more sophisticated and more coordinated. There is no doubt that the Bush Administration desperately wants to be out of Iraq before the run-up to the 2004 Presidential election. To this end, the Coalition has adopted an almost certainly unachievable timetable for returning sovereignty to the Iraqis. But what kind of government will we leave behind, and who will elect/appoint it? Then there is the issue of reconstruction. Who will rebuild this shattered country? The same people who were given the ‘no-play, no-pay’ dictum by the US Defense Department? And the same week asked to forgive Iraqi debt? Not likely.

Powell’s message also addresses the Greater Middle East. He writes: “While our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq will continue in 2004, we are resolved as well to turn the president's goal of a free and democratic Middle East into a reality. We will expand the Middle East Partnership Initiative to encourage political, economic and educational reform throughout the region….”

Achieving Mr. Bush’s Wilsonian vision of a democratic Middle East is easy only for speechwriters. Our closest allies in the war on terrorism are the very countries Mr. Bush would democratize, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example. These are the same authoritarian regimes to which the US continues to cozy up, into which it has poured billions in aid, and which have talked reform and done nothing for decades. Yet Mr. Powell’s message is silent on just how these conflicting priorities are to be reconciled.

Among the more noteworthy characteristics of the Secretary’s message is the number of times he uses the pronoun ‘we’ and the near total absence of references to the United Nations or the international community. Virtually buried in the third paragraph from the bottom of his message -- after Iran, Latin America, North Korea and many other problem regions -- the Secretary asserts: “with our quartet partners -- the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- we will help Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace, so that a free Palestine will exist alongside a secure and democratic Jewish state in Israel.”

The very positioning of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in Mr. Powell’s message speaks volumes about the Bush Administration’s strategic miscalculations about the Middle East. If the US really aspires to win the ‘hearts and minds’ battle of the Arab street, the effort needs to begin in Jerusalem, not in Baghdad or Kabul or Tehran. This means dispensing a lot of tough love to both Israelis and Palestinians, consistently and patiently over an extended period of time, as only the US has the resources and the credibility to do.

Sadly, the pragmatism of US politics suggests that anything that takes a long time and a lot of patience is very unlikely to happen in an election year.