March 10, 2005
Questionable Victory in the Middle East

By Steve Chapman

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 on volume.

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 out.
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, well, Lebanon.

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 in sight.

During the Vietnam War, one senator said we should declare victory and leave. This time, Bush has decided to declare victory and stay.

2005 Creators Syndicate

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Steve Chapman

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