Questionable Victory in the Middle East
Half a million demonstrators turned out in Beirut
on Tuesday, waving flags and chanting slogans in a show of popular
sentiment. But no, this was not the latest call by the Lebanese
opposition for Syria to leave -- this was a call for Syria to
stay. And the rally was roughly seven times bigger than the latest
anti-Syria protest. Maybe bringing democracy to the Arab world
is going to be more complicated than we thought.
Supporters of the war in Iraq have been crowing
about the budding transformation of the Middle East, with democracy
springing up everywhere thanks to President Bush's crusade in
Iraq. President Bush joined in the chorus this week, claiming
that "a critical mass of events is taking that region in
a hopeful new direction."
You can hardly blame them for looking at Lebanon,
Egypt and Saudi Arabia for heartening changes, since there haven't
been many in the place where the transformation was supposed to
start. But there's something delusional about claiming victory
across the entire region when we haven't even come closing to
achieving victory in Iraq. It brings to mind the merchant who
was selling a product below cost but planned to make up the losses
Yes, Iraq held an election on Jan. 30 -- though
one that came about more because of the demands of Iraqi Shiites
than because of the Bush administration, which was never in a
hurry to allow a national plebiscite. The balloting, however,
hasn't had a stabilizing effect.
Attacks on American and Iraqi security personnel
have continued apace. More American soldiers died in February
2005 than in February 2004. The deadliest single attack of the
insurgency took place on Feb. 28, when a suicide car bomber killed
125 people in the Shiite city of Hillah. Iraq is still teetering
at the brink of civil war between the Shiites, who won the elections,
and the Sunnis, who mostly declined to participate.
Nor is it clear that the protests against Syria
in Lebanon had much to do with events in Iraq. Many of the demonstrators,
in fact, cited the inspiration of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution."
It's hard to argue that Bush deserves credit for the peaceful
overthrow of Kiev's dictatorial regime -- which was backed by
Bush soul mate Vladimir Putin, whose dismal human rights record
the administration has done its best to excuse.
Maybe the most important event in the Middle East
was the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian
Authority, which was unconnected to events in Iraq. It took place
because Yasser Arafat died, and because Palestinians saw they
had a chance to improve their lives by turning away from violence.
Even there, though, it would be rash to bet that
because of the advent of democracy, peace will settle over Israel
and Palestine like a gentle snowfall. The 1991 Gulf War helped
to bring about the Oslo peace agreement -- and look how that turned
Some of the signs of progress are very small signs at best. Saudi
Arabia allowed municipal elections, with only men permitted to
vote? It's not exactly the fall of the Berlin Wall. Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak says he'll actually allow more than one candidate
in next year's presidential election? Maybe he'll hold a real
election, or maybe he'll pretend to.
What if Egypt were to let the people have their
way? The United States has faithfully supported Mubarak because
he's maintained peaceful relations with Israel. A government that
represents popular opinion might be far more hostile to Israel
and us. This may explain why the administration has preferred
to focus its attention on the need for human rights progress in,
Even if going to war in Iraq turns out to have
some positive effects on neighboring countries, it's had a host
of negative effects on us. We've had more than 1,500 American
service people killed and more than 11,000 wounded. The price
tag is now close to $300 billion. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman
Richard Myers said last summer that the United States may have
to keep 145,000 troops in Iraq for another five years.
Even if we're willing to bear that burden, we
may not be able. The U.S. military finds itself running short
of the recruits it needs. The general in charge of the Army Reserve
has said the demands of Iraq are threatening to reduce it to a
"broken force." We face a bigger and harder war in Iraq
than the Bush administration ever imagined, and there is no end
During the Vietnam War, one senator said we should
declare victory and leave. This time, Bush has decided to declare
victory and stay.
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