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Domino Theory for Mideast Is High-Risk

March 19, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — During the Vietnam War, the United States insisted that if South Vietnam fell, its neighbors would tumble to communism one after another. Decades later, Washington is gambling on a new domino theory -- one in which a war to liberate Iraq unleashes broad change, including a wave of democracy in the Middle East.

It is a grand vision that offers tantalizing rewards, but also includes huge risks.

By contemplating a new kind of war -- a preemptive assault to oust Saddam Hussein in the name of protecting Americans from rogue nations and terrorists -- the Bush administration also aims to bring peace and stability to the Middle East, end terrorism and ensure Israel's survival and the free flow of oil.

Its willingness to force its vision on leaders across the Middle East has sparked angst and resentment. Widely discussed plans for a postwar occupation have only heightened the alienation. America's friends, including France and Germany, have reacted with dismay and diplomatic roadblocks.

The Arab response could be far more intense. In a part of the world dominated for centuries by outside empires, where people already are angry about U.S. support for Israel, experts say Washington is on a dangerous course.

They warn that the dominoes could fall badly wrong, threatening governments that are friendly to the United States, ushering in a new wave of anti-Americanism and triggering another convulsion of terrorism.

It is a risk the Bush administration appears willing to take. Convinced that a quick and successful war to oust Hussein can begin the desired change, Washington has told allies -- and the United Nations -- that it intends to do what it wants, and is prepared to do it with or without their help.

"By removing Saddam Hussein the U.S. signals to the rest of the world the length they will go to achieve their core foreign policy goals," said Toby Dodge, senior research fellow at the University of Warwick in England. "That is what the Bush doctrine is about. That is what this war is about."

Analysts, including the authors of a classified State Department report leaked in Washington last week, doubt that ousting Hussein will foster democracy in the region.

And however logical and well-meaning the administration's vision for the Middle East may seem to Americans, no matter how strong the hopes are for a decisive war and a brief occupation, the reaction in large parts of the Arab world could hardly be more different. For many Arabs, the U.S. action is proof that they have landed in the crosshairs of Washington's war on terrorism.

They regard the United States as a new colonial power that will further strengthen Israel and strip the Palestinians of any hope for an independent and viable state. They believe America will impose its own vision of good governance on a region that has never accepted Western democracy as the best way to govern, then promote its religion and its culture, and eventually loot the region's oil and gas reserves.

"I believe they want to change regimes all over the region -- not for our sake, but for theirs," said Bassam Noh, a 21-year-old political science student at Cairo's American University, who until recently was not politically active.

Many here say they fear that an attack on Iraq may well achieve what Osama bin Laden could only dream about: It will radicalize a generation of young people, who account for more than half the Arab population. It will not only persuade them that Bin Laden was right -- that Bush is at the head of a new Christian crusade against the Islamic world -- but also that their leaders are impotent and concerned primarily with self-preservation.

That will empower Islamists from Morocco to Kuwait, inspire terrorists and undermine many governments -- including U.S. allies -- that already struggle for legitimacy.

Arabs worry what America might do next: Force reform in Iran? Pressure Saudi Arabia to overhaul its religious-based political system? Impose a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with no viable Palestine?

A poll of people in six Middle East countries released in mid-March indicated that the vast majority expected a U.S.-led attack on Iraq to lead to greater instability and more terrorism, and hurt chances for a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Washington's shifting explanations to justify war have only deepened Arab suspicion. The U.S. has variously cited the need to eliminate Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction, Hussein's abysmal human rights record, and his alleged connections to Bin Laden's terror network as reasons to justify the confrontation.

But even at their most benevolent, Bush's explanations have been viewed skeptically.

"In a free Iraq, there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms," Bush said in his speech Monday that imposed a 48-hour deadline for Hussein to leave Iraq.

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