By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
July 19, 2006
The death toll in Lebanon and Israel, which exceeds 250 in the past week, is a grim reminder that the sectarian violence in Baghdad 500 miles to the east is but one of many hotspots in a region that has been plagued by violence for more than 1,000 years. The oft-stated hope that a new Iraqi government would swiftly transform the region's fractured politics has been realized with unintended consequences: an emboldened Iran; the victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections; and Syria's departure from Lebanon. The familiar strain has been hatred between the Arabs and Israelis and a widely held assumption that the situation will grow worse before it improves.
"Unless and until you solve the Arab-Israel conflict, you are going to have instability in the region," said Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Some scholars view the situation from the opposite direction. Coit Blacker, director of Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, believes that "there is no answer to the Arab-Israel conflict until the nature of politics within the region changes substantially."
Yet there is wide agreement that more than three years after attacking Iraq, the administration's mission to build a democracy that would foster stability - the most often cited reason to go to war after ridding Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction - is a long way from being accomplished.
"Partly as a result of what's happening in Iraq, the whole region seems to be separating along sectarian lines," said Michael Sterner, former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and an assistant secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter.
"I haven't seen every clash as being something that portends doom, but it's a trend that is rather dangerous in my opinion. It could really spell trouble," Sterner said.
The path from the U.S. invasion of Iraq to this week's clash between Israel and Hezbollah is a matter of conjecture. However, most analysts agree that Syria and Iran are behind Hezbollah's actions, and have been stirred, in part, by the 2003 attack.
"It's an inescapable fact, as uncomfortable as it is, that the ... Iranian position is stronger than it otherwise would be," Blacker said. "It's not an accident that on the more traditional Middle East front, things are heating up again. The Iranians are trying to send a concrete signal."
The overthrow of Iran's Sunni enemies in Iraq has "created an Iranian moment," Cook said
The Syrians, who are largely Sunnis, withdrew from Lebanon last year, a move which was widely hailed as a positive consequence of Hussein's demise. Yet they left behind a government in Lebanon, though democratically elected, apparently too weak to control the violent Hezbollah forces who have been firing missiles at the Israelis and killing scores of its citizens.
This was not the sort of geopolitical shakeup predicted by President Bush when he declared two weeks before the Iraq invasion that "acting against the danger will also contribute greatly to the long-term safety and stability of our world."
Although such stability in the future is not out of the question, it is clear that the Bush administration expected results far more quickly.
Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, an administration confidant who was among the strongest proponents of the notion that overthrowing Hussein would stabilize the region, insisted at the time the war began that the fruits of Iraq's liberation would come quickly.
"We want to bring real stability to the region," Perle said in a 2003 debate sponsored by Foreign Policy magazine. "We will hand over power quickly - not in years, maybe not even in months - to give Iraqis a chance to shape their own destiny. The world will see this."
Perle said the chances for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "will improve as soon as Saddam is gone," and asserted that afterward "we will have a very good opportunity ... to persuade Syria to stop sponsoring terrorism.
"I promise we will be more effective in that if we remove Hussein," Perle said, exhibiting the confidence shared by many in the administration.
Three years later, it is the attack on Iraq that many critics cite as the reason that Bush is unable to engage Syria. Rather than directly taking to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he wishes U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan would apply such pressure. It was in the same conversation, which unbeknownst to Bush and Blair was being captured by an open microphone, that Bush said: "The thing is, what they need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s - and it's over."
It is uncertain that any amount of diplomacy could have stopped the recent violence. Previous presidents have invested far more time and effort in Middle East negotiations, without lasting results. Yet Bush must now battle the perception, certainly throughout the Arab world, that he has embarked on a policy of failure.
According to Hisham Milhem, Washington correspondent for the Lebanese paper Al-Nahar, there is a sense that "America's moment in the Middle East has come to an end, or to be specific, George Bush's moment in the Middle East is over ... and that the Americans are drowning in Iraq's quicksand, that the American project, the drive to spread democracy in the Middle East, has reached a dead end."
In the weeks before the war began, Bush said that "old patterns of conflict in the Middle East can be broken. ... America will seize every opportunity in pursuit of peace. And the end of the present regime in Iraq would create such an opportunity."
Yet the consequences have not been what Bush envisioned.
"Even if you defeat one
group, what happens if you create an environment where others
will take its place, whether it is in Lebanon or in Syria?"
asked Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University
Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com
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