YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Shards of a Shattered Mideast Cut Both Ways

October 02, 2002|GRAHAM E. FULLER | Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA.

History will probably record that it was George W. Bush's neoconservative, harshly unilateral style and blunt military means that blasted open the logjam of the Middle Eastern status quo--a status quo that is hard to defend by any measure.

He may wield a far blunter instrument than is desirable for engineering complex processes of political and social change, but that's the way it's going to be. Bush's policies will be the most catalytic force for change to hit the Middle East in many decades.

There are numerous reasons for opposing his war against Iraq--the U.S. economy, imperial overreach, damage to the international system via his unilateralism with an attitude--but one of the least compelling reasons is the fear that this military operation will provoke instability across the region.

Indeed, it will do just that. But instability may also be just what the Middle East needs. "Stability" through despotism is inherently unstable.

And it is especially hard to argue that Saddam Hussein, the greatest thug in modern Middle East history, should be spared in the name of preserving this regional stability-by-force, even if his threat is not imminent.

The audacious neoconservatives in the Bush administration see the fall of Hussein as the gateway to broad change, which they believe will quickly favor American interests. They are right about the broad regional change but wrong about what will serve their interests. This military operation will unleash forces antipathetic to most American interests, at least over the short term--just the contrary of what Bush wants.

Yet the irony is that this is just what the Middle East requires to launch a process of attaining political maturity.

Development of democratic forces in the Middle East has been slighted by every single U.S. administration. We're not just talking about some lovely liberal ideal here, because absence of democracy has real consequences.

It means bad governance, which spawns bad economies, bitter frustration, hatred for the U.S. for its routine support of nearly all dictatorships in the region in the name of "American interests"--unless the ruler is audacious enough to buck the American will. It means that most political parties are banned so that Islamists, operating out of mosques, become the sole spokesmen for change and the primary vehicle of opposition to these regimes. It creates a sense of powerlessness on the part of the population that leads to political fatalism and the tendency to blame all ills on external forces. The people end up cheering for any strongman who will stand up to the U.S. and oppose the status quo, men like Osama bin Laden and Hussein.

Bush himself is poised to threaten that status quo. That is why regional despots friendly and unfriendly to the U.S. are running scared; they sense that what might be coming could be revolutionary in its implications.

They are right.

Breaking political logjams is always dangerous, but so is preserving them. We have coddled an unacceptable status quo in the region for too long in the vain hope that it best serves U.S. interests.

Regrettably, it is political shock--wars, revolutions, convulsions--that invariably precedes all reform and positive political change in the world, including the Middle East.

New political orders will emerge, slowly or rapidly, that will remove many kings, emirs and presidents-for-life, whether friend or foe. If the moderate political forces of the region are skillful and lucky, there will be a move in many states toward greater democratization and public participation.

Though democratization is vitally necessary to reforming the mess of Middle East politics, the reality is that angry publics across the Middle East will initially support anti-American leaders and policies in the first few elections as they release pent-up hostility. Islamists of all stripes, liberal or radical, are likely to be the short-term beneficiaries.

This doesn't have to mean having the Taliban or Bin Ladens in power, but few new leaders will have any great fondness for Washington and its policies of the past decades. Even any gratitude in a new Iraqi order will wear off quickly.

And expressions of anger and acting-out by populations entering into an adolescence of political experience will be the norm. We may not get democracy everywhere as the next step, but change usually does bring some kind of crude political progress and adjustment to reality.

It is ironic that the Bush administration, for whom international stability and tough-minded rulers are the highest value, is now to be the inadvertent instrument of the greatest change in the region in decades. Change is good, but it is not what Bush is bargaining for.

Los Angeles Times Articles