Wonders of the war
Consider the shock and awe of good news. North Korea dropped its bluster and endorsed the multilateral talks the United States insisted on. China decided it was a good idea to join those talks. ("The Iraq war has brought a change," said a professor of international studies at People's University in Beijing.) Iran's former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, suggested a national referendum on restoring ties to the United States. Palestinian terrorist Abu Abbas was captured, almost 18 years after directing the attack on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.
Most of these reactions come not from the result of U.S. intervention, which was never in doubt, but from the swift and stunning victory. Iraqi forces were not impressive, but few predicted the speed and precision of the American and British troops and the low casualties among them--about five deaths per day of combat. Stories from Russia report the consternation of military planners there at the performance of coalition forces. High competence and power get the world's attention, particularly when combined with intelligence and restraint.
Along the way, conventional wisdom suffered yet another series of defeats. No wave of terrorism greeted the American campaign, though fanatics will surely strike again. Neither foreign troops nor suicide bombers paralyzed U.S. and British forces. Saddam Hussein could not mount a deadly and costly Stalingrad defense in Baghdad. The Arab "street" did not rise. Many people insist that Arabs are being colonized again by western powers in search of oil. No surprise there. But there is dissonance in that message now. It is hard to explain that the dread crusaders have taken over again when everyone can see the Iraqi people exulting over fallen statues of Saddam.
Erode rage. For once in the Middle East, the United States has intervened on behalf of the people, not to prop up yet another regional autocrat. This profoundly liberal step could alter the usual antiwestern discourse in the region. It may gradually erode what Fouad Ajami calls the "road rage" of a thwarted Arab world steeped in "a political tradition of belligerent self-pity."
Some voices in the Arab world are now willing to say the freedom of one nation can have an impact on another. This "could be the beginning of transformation in the Arab region," said Tarek al-Absi, a Yemeni university professor. It is a transformation, he added, that can't occur without western help.
Many hope the first "demonstration effects" will be felt in Iran, where reformers hope for a breakthrough against a repressive regime. Anxiety must be rising among the area's dictators. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is no Saddam Hussein, but there are pictures of Mubarak all over Egypt, and the decapitation of Saddam statues in Iraq must give him pause. Danielle Pletka, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said, "The Middle East is replete with leaders who have not had the best interests of their people at heart. They should look at the Iraqi people and worry."
Syria, the current target of frank bullying by the United States, will be under more and more pressure to change. Damascus harbors numerous terrorist groups. Syria occupies Lebanon and sponsors the powerful presence there of Hezbollah, the terrorist organization that has active cells on four continents, according to U.S. officials. Last fall, Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, called on the Bush administration to order Syria to shut down Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon and to destroy them if Syria refused. That hasn't happened, partly because attacking Hezbollah would be dangerous, partly because Syria agreed to help in the fight against al Qaeda.
Changing Iraq is the most moderate way to press for reform throughout the Middle East. Iraq is heavily secular and has plenty of oil. But its severe ethnic and tribal conflicts and revenge culture could evoke what happened in Yugoslavia. The United States has to set up a federated political system that is at least benign, if not fully democratic. The Kurds in the north, under protection of the no-fly zone, have evolved a relatively successful political system. A system that funnels oil money to all citizens, as in Chad and the state of Alaska, would ease tensions and demonstrate fairness. The whole world is watching this attempt by one nation to transform the political culture of another. The effort is fraught with danger, but we can't allow it to fail.
This story appears in the April 28, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.