Wednesday, December 24, 2003


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By William Fisher

As 2003 draws to a close, one of the nagging unanswered questions is this: Why did the United States invade Iraq? By which I mean: Did we do it because, as President Bush said, we faced an imminent threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction? Or did we do it to begin a ‘revolutionary’ process of ‘democratizing’ the Arab Middle East?

If we examine US actions solely on the basis of the Administration’s words and the timeline of the invasion, we are drawn to the first answer: WMD, and its occult connections to Al Queda, and some Iraqi’s itchy finger on a nuclear trigger. After all, Mr. Bush’s Wilsonian rhetoric about making the Middle East safe for democracy was not enunciated until many months after our invasion. Perhaps that was simply another deception. Maybe Mr. Bush had to find a noble-sounding, fully-retrofitted, Don Quixote-esque rationale to divert attention from the missing WMD and our obvious lack of trustworthy intelligence regarding what we should expect to happen after the invasion.

On the other hand, the notion of using US military power to democratize the Arab Middle East has long been a staple of the neoconservative agenda – an agenda constantly and forcefully espoused by Administration officials at the highest levels. Was our invasion perhaps a case of Bush actually beginning to implement the neocon blueprint, while telling the world it was about WMD because, as one senior Administration official asserted, “WMD was the one thing we could all agree on”?

Mr. Bush can now ignore the question. With the capture of Saddam Hussein, he can now merely claim, in the simplistic one-dimensional syntax he is so fond of, that the world is a safer place without this despicable tyrant. A nicer place certainly. A safer place will be for forthcoming events and the perspective of historians to judge.

But let us assume that, from the get-go, regardless of what he said, the President’s real purpose was to bring democracy to the Arab Middle East. Is he winning? Let’s examine the scorecard.

In the Arab Middle East, respect for the United States has never been lower. We have zero credibility. We are seen as an occupier and a bully, even by most of those who welcomed us to Iraq. And we are seen as the proxy for and supporter of another occupier: Israel. We were the driving force behind the creation of the United Nations, but we were unable to summon the patience to stay the course to have honest dialog with its naysayers in ‘old Europe’, and chose ‘bring ‘em on’ unilateralism instead. We invaded Afghanistan, threw the bad guys out, and then largely said ‘sayonara’. Can there be a country in the Arab Middle East that doesn’t wonder whether this is the fate that awaits them next? For the past three decades, we have cozied up to the authoritarian leaders of the Arab Middle East – including Iraq – pumped billions of dollars into aid and political cover for them while turning two blind eyes to their shortcomings, and now, suddenly, the sleeping quarterback has awakened, and wants to move the goalposts. Are we winning the hearts and minds battle? Hardly. It is one of the great paradoxes of our time that the country that virtually invented modern advertising and marketing seems paralyzed by the task of communicating the values of the United States. Those we would ‘democratize’ – the Arab Street, as it were – feed on a daily media diet in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main food group. Yet the Bush Administration is eerily silent on this centrality. One wonders whether anyone in the Bush Administration appreciates that, whether for reasons of principle or cynical opportunism, a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian issue could be the catalyst for democratization they claim to be seeking.

Then, as if to rub ‘old Europe’s’ nose in it, our Mr. Wolfowitz issued his ‘no-play-no-pay’ edict. Which seems to have led to one of the few positive initiatives of this last week of 2003: the dispatch of former Secretary of State James Baker to Europe, ostensibly to discuss Iraqi debt forgiveness. But Baker’s mission is far larger than debt reduction. First, he will make it clear that ‘no-pay-no-play’ is off the table. He will try to heal the rifts between the US and its traditional allies. But far more important, James Baker is absolute anathema to the neoconservatives in the US Government. He stands for tough but fair diplomacy – a word that has been expunged from the neocon lexicon. Choosing him, let us pray, may give all of us a bit of hope that the President is having second thoughts about the US standing virtually alone in the world.

Rereading these year-end musings, I am prompted to say what is too often forgotten by people in my business: I’m happy I was lucky enough to have been born in a country where saying the things I’ve said doesn’t land me in jail!