Posted on January 13, 2003 in Washington Watch

There is a disconnect between the reality of U.S. foreign policy and Arab perceptions about that policy. The issue of war in Iraq is a case in point.

During a recent visit to the Middle East it was made clear to me, in a number of conversations, that not only do many believe a war to be inevitable, but they also see that war to be part of a U.S. grand design to dominate Middle East and Central Asian oil, redraw the political maps of the region and establish a type of U.S. imperial hegemony.

Now to be fair, such a view cannot be dismissed as mere “conspiratorial fantasy”. In fact, a number of individuals, many of whom are hard-line extremists, both inside of the U.S. government and outside, but still close to the Administration, have projected elements of such a grand imperial strategy. In articles and public forums they have advanced their case for a war on Iraq as the essential first step of a U.S.-led radical transformation of the entire Middle East region. The Pentagon’s release earlier this year of a new military strategy paper calling for “preemptive U.S. strikes” and projecting a vision of U.S. military hegemony, only created greater fears about U.S. intentions.

This vision of an Iraq war and U.S. policy designed to refashion the entire Middle East after such a war is arrogant. It is also frighteningly naïve. Despite the unease it has caused in the United States and the fear and anger it has created in the Middle East, those projecting this war and post-war strategy are waging an intense battle both with the inner circles of the Administration and in the broader arena of public opinion to establish their vision as official U.S. policy. But thus far, they have not succeeded. The debate continues. The imperial war group has not yet won–nor do I believe they will win.

The President, to date, has gone only as far as to seek to apply maximum pressure on Baghdad to disarm and implement UN Security Council Resolutions on weapons of mass destruction. While I believe and have argued that U.S. domestic politics has played a role in Administration calculations, it has done so in two ways. On the one hand, the President found it useful to change the subject last summer and move the national political discussion away from the failing economy and corporate scandals to more Administration-friendly topics–i.e., national security and Iraq. On the other hand, while pushing Democrats to give him a freer hand in his efforts to confront Iraq, Bush has also been attentive to the concerns that the public is expressing about the possibilities of an Iraq war. This explains the shifting of Administration rhetoric on this subjects over the last several months.

U.S. opinion sees the Iraqi dictator as evil and dangerous. They want to see him removed and even express support for a U.S. invasion of Iraq to disarm and depose the Baghdad regime. It was on this wave of opinion that Bush built his initiatives to pressure Congress to get behind his leadership.

But, U.S. public opinion has deep reservations about a war with Iraq as well. They are concerned with casualties (both U.S. and Iraqi civilians); they do not want to see the U.S. go it alone and they want UN backing for any conflict; they are wary of any prolonged U.S. military presence in Iraq and if there are to be hostilities they want the U.S. military to remain in the country after the conflict for as short an amount of time as possible.

Attitudes such as these do not lend themselves to support for grand imperial schemes. And it is attitudes such as these that can explain why President Bush decided, after all, to go to the UN to seek UN Security Council Resolution 1441 and now hints that the U.S. may see a second UN resolution as necessary before any hostilities can be launched; or why after floating the possibility that a U.S. general might run a post-war Iraq, the Pentagon dropped the idea; or why recent Administration statements on Iraq speak only of disarming the dictator, not removing him; or why, even though verbally abusing the inspectors, the Administration shows some degree of cooperation with this effort. The inspectors remain critical to U.S. policy since if they fail to produce a “smoking gun” proving Iraqi non-compliance, then UN support and also US public opinion support for a war will not be easy to achieve.

Given all of this, some have gone so far as to suggest that, in reality, U.S. policy goals would easily be met by either a verifiably disarmed or deposed Saddam and that U.S. war-talk and actions to date are designed mainly to apply maximum pressure on the regime in order to bring about one of those two ends.

At the end of the day President Bush is a conservative, to be sure, but a pragmatist as well. Ideological visions may be useful in shaping the policy debate–but they do not win wars, win elections or hold sway in the all-important court of U.S. public opinion.

The U.S. is not well suited to empire building or management. We are an unruly and even, at times, chaotic democracy, more driven by day-to-day domestic concerns than grand schemes, especially those involving foreign affairs. Despite our power and our economic and military global reach, there are clear-headed leaders within the military and State Department who, understanding the realities of the world and of America’s democracy, are against over extending our commitments and our designs in the world.

Right now, President Bush has on his plate both the important business of Afghanistan–Bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain free and the newly installed government is still not in control of much of the country–and several critical domestic economic concerns.

Bush will not repeat the error of his father’s administration. Bush Sr. won a war and lost reelection because the economy did not recover and the budget compromise he reached with Congress early in his Administration cost him important conservative support.

The neo-conservatives within this Administration may have designs on an empire, but President Bush’s principle designs are on reelection in 2004. He may be far out on a limb with war-talk and war-preparation, but not so far out that he is left without a way to declare victory and pullback should Iraq change or unconditionally disarm. And he is not so far out that if conditions are not right and public support is not strong enough or sustainable enough to risk engagement in a long-term military adventure that he will not be able to find a way to ease back. The President’s advisers know that a risky war, while potentially satisfying to some of his supporters, could prove fatal to his own, longer-term goals, and may, therefore, not be worth the risk.

So do not believe the op-eds or the “leaks” from unnamed “Pentagon officials”. The matter of the war and the goals of the war are not yet resolved. And more than that, the grand scheme you and I have read about that calls for redrawing maps and creating a domino effect of regime change–all are still just the fantasy of some neo-conservative ideologues. They may write fanciful positions papers. But the generals who must execute them and the politicians who must live or die by the consequences of these fanciful papers–all know better and are attempting to provide some restraint.

This being said, it is still possible for the regime in Baghdad to miscalculate and set in motion a chain of events that could lead to a devastating war. Depending on the outcome and duration of the hostilities it is also possible that, as a result of such a war, elements of the design of the empire-builders could be implemented and advanced. This, of course, should be avoided, which is why it is important for all of us to continue to act and urge others to act responsibly.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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