Damaged goods

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General Tommy Franks, the military commander of the coalition forces waging war in Iraq, has declared that there is no doubt whatsoever regarding the outcome of the war. The general was, of course, talking about its military aspects. However, beyond the fighting, beyond even the political arrangements in post-Saddam Iraq, loom giant question marks. The Western Alliance, NATO, the European Union, and particularly the United Nations will all have been derailed by the Iraqi imbroglio. They will all emerge from it weakened, akin to damaged goods.

Their restructuring will engage the world in the months–and probably the years–to come. Just how the pieces will be put together again will determine what sort of world we will be living in. If all goes well, and if the military campaign is short and successful, it could create a new, and better, world order. But failure could also usher in a period of international political instability, in which local tensions would win out over global interests and in which particularistic issues would defeat universalistic aims.

Such a danger would be particularly evident in the Middle East. How will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be affected by the fall-out from the Iraqi war? Will Turkish-Kurdish tensions get out of hand? Will the fragile stability of Jordan be unraveled? What problems will be created for the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf countries by the aftermath of the war? Will the moderates of Iran succeed in throwing off the yoke of religious fanaticism?

A partial answer to many of these questions lies in the policy decisions of the United States after the fighting draws to an end, and to the extent that domestic issues, in particular the aim to be re-elected, affect the president’s foreign policy guidelines. President Bush had been elected as a conservative leader on a strong domestic ticket and with isolationist tendencies. His objective was a powerful, conservative United States. Foreign policy hardly figured in his calculations.

All that changed after the terror attack of September 11, and especially now that the United States has to face the consequences of the tremendous setback it suffered in the international arena on the eve of the Iraqi war. And yet the strong inclination of the president and his leadership team will be to concentrate on those domestic issues that will ensure the re-election of the president for a second term and not on foreign policy issues. Patching up the differences with France, Germany and Belgium will not gain votes; nor will any effort to strengthen the United Nations, which has been the principal casualty in the international arena.

A serious effort to implement the present roadmap and to move forward in promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians will be considered as estranging Jewish and fundamentalist Christian voters. So, equally, will any movement towards lessening the hostility felt in the Muslim world as a result of the war in Iraq.

These, then, are not popular roads for the United States to traverse as the election campaign draws ever nearer. And yet, failure to do so could have devastating consequences for the future world order, and in particular for the countries of the Middle East.

An isolationist United States would leave a dangerous vacuum in the international arena. The United Nations has been largely discredited and can no longer act as the world policeman. The European Union is in disarray. There is now more need that ever for an active American foreign policy that could mend broken fences and restore a strong American-European Alliance that would involve itself in defusing potential threats, particularly in the Middle East. One such threat is Iran, another could be Libya if it continues with its plan to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

And without such involvement there is, sadly, little hope that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to extract themselves from the present morass. Continuing deterioration on that front can have dire consequences for the stability of neighboring regimes, particularly that of Jordan. For any progress on that front, the US will have to implement the roadmap, and with it an international monitoring group to verify implementation and report on infringements.

Will the American leaders be ready to face the new post-war challenges? They will be sorely taxed by the need to establish a new, federal regime in Iraq, based on human liberties. Their hands will be full in sorting out their relations with Turks and Kurds, Sunnis and Shias. But over and above all that, their minds will be focused on winning the next elections. That will be their overriding goal. Let us hope that, at the same time, they will be cognizant of their awesome responsibility to the rest of the world, and will not falter in fulfilling a task that is not less important than removing Saddam Hussein from power.

David Kimche, former Director-General of the Israel Foreign Ministry and Ambassador-at-large, is President of the Israel Council for Foreign Relations, and heads the Israeli chapter of the International Alliance for Arab-Israeli Peace (the Copenhagen Group).

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