July 22, 2003

The horns of a Middle East dilemma?

Play along for a second and let's go back a year or two in a time machine. Let's say that the threat picture for the US is that Iran and Syria are considered to be the foremost physical sponsors of terrorism and Saudi Arabia is considered the financier of terror with a very complex relationship with the US (even more so than the rest of that complex region). Saddam Hussein is mostly in a box but he obviously wants out and with France, Germany, and Russia on his side eventually he's going to get out.

An invasion of Saudi Arabia is out of the question. The Saudi oil fields are too highly at risk and the blow to the oil consuming world economy would be too great even if war would leave the fields entirely intact.

An invasion of Iran would kill the democracy movement there and would also bring great turmoil to world oil markets in the run up to war. The mullahs only salvation is national unity prompted by invasion.

Syria, while not much of an oil state, is too far away to solve more than the problem of Syria itself and will bring implementation problems with it. Invading Iraq means bringing up the ghosts of Desert Storm. Invading Syria means going through Lebanon and awakening the ghosts of Beirut 1983. There is one alternative left and it's perfect.

An invasion of Iraq and setting up a free, democratic republic on each of these other states' borders makes perfect sense in defanging all of these threats. It definitively takes care of the threat of Saddam Hussein. Syria ducks and covers because it finds itself surrounded by hostile regimes with only its satrapy Lebanon for local comfort. Iran already has a tremendous problem with its youth and middle class wanting an end to theocracy, a secular, successful Iraqi government would end mullah rule there. And Saudi Arabia? With Iraq no longer a threat, US troops would not have to be there anymore but the House of Saud could not stand the whirlwind of discontent unleashed by a neighbor whose government is honest and worked. The instrument of unrest would undoubtedly be the same forces bedeviling the US so their funding of terror would die out over time as they come to this realization.

Now let's come back to the present and see whether our time machine showed us a fanciful picture show or today's reality fits this past we've seen. Syria *is* ducking and covering, Iran is in the grip of growing unrest and desperately intervening in Iraq to try to sabotage Iraq's transition to a democratic republic and keep the occupation troops there longer (something that seems counterintuitive without context), and Saudi Arabia no longer has US troops in it (supposedly the chief problem the Islamists had with them) yet has come under the harshest terrorist threat ever. Saudi anti-terrorist action has ceased to be a joke and is moving towards more meaningful cooperation.

The objection is immediately raised, why not just lay out this case to the world? Why go through all the other (also true) justifications of Saddam's butchery, spreading democracy as a moral matter, chemical, biological, and nuclear threats, Saddam's aggressive history, etc?

The problem is that the Middle East culture (if such a large place can be said to have a monolithic culture) is generally a shame culture. If you are seen to be acting in your own interest, that's one thing but be seen as doing so under pressure, as a lackey of a foreign power, and you must change course or fall even if changing course profoundly risks your position anyway. You cannot be shamed and survive.

This leaves the Bush administration in a tight spot. Democrats need to dirty up the Iraq triumph using any means necessary and the surface reasons are not surviving the effort without damage. That damage will continue for partisan reasons. Politically, if the Bush administration doesn't repair their case for war they're in trouble in 2004.

But if they lay out the real case, an elegant bank shot that plays off of Middle East psychology and neutralizes four threats with one military operation the operation itself becomes undone because shame and pride will force the players to act against their own (and the US') best interests. So we end up stuck playing at justifying shadow motivations and political opportunists who either don't see the real strategy or don't care about the national interest ankle biting in order to gain power.

Update: Stratfor (whose Iraq reporting was instrumental to my discernment of US strategy in Iraq) had this to say in its Morning Intelligence Report in my email box

"Officials in Riyadh on Monday said 16 suspected militants had been arrested and 20 tons of bomb-making supplies had been literally unearthed in a four-day sweep in areas of Riyadh, Qassim and the Eastern Province. Saudi Interior Ministry officials announced the seizure of trucks prepared for converting into bombs and that a search was ongoing for additional suspects. Facing an opposition able to stockpile at least 20 tons of explosives, the Saudi government no longer needs much encouragement from the United States to continue its crackdown."

Funny enough, Stratfor doesn't quite 'get' the problem of why the Bush administration doesn't just blurt out its strategy. They remain puzzled over that aspect of current events.

Posted by TMLutas at July 22, 2003 12:40 PM