Next week, Iraq will celebrate the first anniversary of its liberation from Saddam Hussein's rule.
The war began with "shock and awe" and a sublime ambition - not merely to find weapons of mass destruction and liquidate Saddam's rule, but to build a new Middle East. The second year is opening with a new aspiration: A "wider Middle East" is the name of the American initiative that wishes to export democracy, freedom of expression, human rights and a modern economy for the Arab and Islamic states.
The assumption is that the wider the cultural and economic gap between Islamic and Western states, the greater the danger of terror, international crime and illegal immigration facing the West.
A year later, this conflict is wearing an ideological cloak that has sparked off fascinating intellectual arguments in the Arab states - whether to accept the American dictate for reform from "without" or promote a reform from "within" and thus avert an American decree. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a government-guided campaign has been launched against Islamic extremism; Egyptian President Mubarak has ordered a lifting of the ban on journalists who violate media and censorship laws; the Jordanian government has decided to put together a new, more liberal codex to be studied in schools; and in Syria there is talk of a reform in the status of the Ba'ath Party.
But the stronger the American administration's rhetoric about its ideological aspirations regarding the war in Iraq, the further it moves from the practical foundations that could enhance the chances for change in the Middle East.
The Americans have not attended to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular, and the Israeli-Arab one, in general, for more than two years. The promise that the Iraq war would serve as a catalyst for the peace process evaporated instantly. The administration has had no success in influencing either Israeli or Palestinian policy. The road map has become an archaeological exhibit, the Geneva understandings have turned into an underground theater and the controversy between Washington and Jerusalem on the separation fence has shrunk to a polite discussion with lots of head nodding.
Washington also put on earmuffs when Bashar Assad made his suggestion to renew the political process with Israel. First, let him stop supporting terror, occupying Lebanon and holding weapons of mass destruction, it ordered. The United States did not make these conditions in its attempts to negotiate with North Korea and their absence did not hinder it from conducting successful talks with Lybia. These talks proved that conditions can be the result of negotiations, rather than be presented as prior conditions.
Iran, which is also included now in the "wider Middle East," expected some American gesture after its cooperation in the war against Iraq and its signing of the expanded protocol of the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Washington responded with threatening rhetoric that contributed to the conservative victory in the parliamentary elections.
Iraq, that unique experiment in political genetic engineering, still hasn't delivered the goods. The temporary constitution drafted there is an important achievement but as temporary as the constitution itself. It promises numerous civil rights but has no guarantee for the political structure that will manage Iraq and it cannot serve as a substitute for the nonexistent security. The fatal terrorist attacks in the city of Karbala and the daily fighting, along with the understanding that an American army will have to remain a long time in Iraq's alleys, are turning Iraq at best into a laboratory state that cannot serve as a model for mass production of Arab democracy.
The expanded Middle East seems more and more like a wide abaya attempting to cover up both the customer's and the tailor's flaws. As though Washington were saying, if we speak about democracy we won't have to stick our hands into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if we lecture about civil rights we will not have to implement them in Gaza or Saudi Arabia. Thus, while the American ideological factory is working nonstop, it vanishes when it is required to translate its ideas into acts.
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