Three devastating failures

The coming year is likely to signal the failure of America’s Middle East policy in three critical spheres: democratic reform, Iraq and Iran.

If it’s any sort of compensation, let it be noted that in 2005 the United States scored a major victory for its Middle East policy in expelling Syria from Lebanon. Its policies genuinely empowered individuals in the Arab world to speak out for democracy and human rights. And it watched with satisfaction as Israel left Gaza, even though Israeli unilateral withdrawal is in some ways a reaction to failed US policies.

But 2006 will be far more critical. First, because the Bush administration’s democratic reform policies will reach a moment of truth that will enable us to judge whether the US has made a positive or a negative contribution to peace, stability and democracy in the Arab countries.

During the past two years, Washington has been energetically fostering, encouraging and occasionally (Iraq) imposing democratic processes on the Arab states of the region. At an early stage it understood that for these processes to be democratic they must be inclusive, and that meant enfranchising the Islamist movements. But when confronted with armed Islamist movements–in Iraq and Lebanon, where armed Shi’ite movements have close relations with a hostile neighbor, Iran, but also in Palestine–it opted for inclusion at the expense of common sense, and agreed that they could participate and be elected. It relied on the totally untested assumption that the Islamists, once elected, would recognize the benefits of democracy to the extent of dismantling their militias and private armies.

In other words, Washington set aside one of the basic tenets of democratic sovereignty–the concentration of force exclusively in the hands of the (democratically elected) ruler–and invited armed extremists to join the process, in the belief that democracy will always produce a better result than any other system. By the end of 2005, armed Shi’ite movements had won a majority of the votes in Iraq for the second time; Hizballah, whose armed forces control the southern area of Lebanon, had taken up ministerial posts in that country; and Hamas, with thousands of terrorists under arms, was poised to win a large portion of the Palestinian vote on January 25.

True, in Lebanon and Palestine–though not in Iraq–Washington repeatedly criticized the Islamists and called upon them to disarm. But nowhere did it seek to deny their participation in elections, thereby seemingly proving that the administration is selective in its approach to armed Islamists but ultimately consistent in enfranchising them. In Egypt, where the Mubarak regime yielded to American pressure and allowed the Muslim Brotherhood (which is unarmed) to run in parliamentary elections, the Brethren won some 20 percent of the seats despite heavy regime constraints on their campaign, once again confirming that real elections in the Arab Middle East mean, to a considerable extent, a strong representation for Islamists.

In 2006 we shall see how the American gamble with Islamists and democracy works. In Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, do they disarm, commit to the basic principles of human rights, and play the democratic game? Not likely. Rather, they will find endless excuses not to, thereby implying that their attitude toward democracy is expedient rather than principled. The outcome will be critical for the near future of the Middle East as well as for the fortunes and legacy of the Bush administration. Even before reaching this moment of truth for the American gamble, we can conclude from observing the likes of SCIRI, Hizballah and Hamas, that for the moment at least, Washington’s democratic experiment is reducing rather than enhancing the prospects for Arab-Israel peace and regional stability.

Apropos American-sponsored democracy in Iraq, the coming year will also be critical because it is likely to witness that country’s gradual disintegration into three separate ethnic-religious-political units, as Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites move in different strategic directions. This could have far-reaching consequences for the stability of the entire region, not the least of which could be escalated terrorism. This was hardly President George W. Bush’s objective in March 2003 when the US invaded Iraq.

Finally, Iran’s nuclear program, if allowed to proceed unimpeded, is predicted to pass a certain "point of no return" this coming year, beyond which only military means could stop a determined regime in Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. The administration’s predicament with Iran is very much a by-product of its policies regarding Iraq and democratization. In the post-9/11 months, when President George W. Bush designated Iran, Iraq and North Korea the "axis of evil" and it was perfectly obvious that Tehran posed a far greater threat to Middle East stability and tranquility than Baghdad, it was still possible for the US to concentrate its efforts on disarming Iran rather than in remaking Iraq and enfranchising Islamist militants.

Now it appears to be too late.