The way forward
The new report on Iraq offers hope for both sides, taking a very different position from that of the present US administration, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
It was no coincidence that the Baker-Hamilton Commission called its report The Way Forward. Some would argue that the report was a face- saving formula, a gimmick to allow the US to initiate a systematic withdrawal from the Middle East. But it is possible to see the report as a shift in policy and focus. After all, the report offers a new vision, and one that is diametrically opposed to that which the US administration had followed since 9/11.
Either way, the success or failure of this new project would depend on the reaction of the countries in our region. It is up to the countries of this region to find a way of benefiting from the opportunities open to them. Otherwise, there will be further trouble ahead.
The Baker-Hamilton report offers a new direction. But even this could prove just as disastrous to the region as anything US policy has done in the past. What matters now is for the major countries in the region to come up with project of their own. It is simply too risky to leave the future of this region to the Americans to decide alone.
Let's compare the new scheme with the old one. In both cases, the Americans want to protect their interests in the region. But there is a difference in approach. The Bush administration has so far seen nothing but trouble coming from this region. The neo-cons spoke of political and economic mismanagement in the region. Citing UN Development Programme Human Rights Reports, they lectured us about economic and political reform. They told us that the ills of this region have little to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. They argued that the countries of this region were fomenting hatred to the US, Israel, and the West to cover up on their own failings. They said that the region was a breeding ground for terrorism, the primary threat to world order. We were also told that since the Palestinians -- and others in the Arab world -- failed to accept Clinton's initiative in 2000, the US had nothing more to offer.
The new project is more pragmatic. The Baker- Hamilton Commission approaches the whole region as one strategic block in which all problems and crises interact. In this new project, a whole gamut of regional ills needs to be tackled, from the Arab-Israeli conflict to political and economic reform. Even the view with regard to existing political regimes has changed. The US no longer sees itself as responsible for changing systems of government in the region, rather, it will content itself with encouraging reform. This is a view born out by experience. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, regime change didn't bring about good governments or perfect markets. Instead, it spread chaos and violence, and turned both countries into potential exporters of tumult.
The old US project assumes that military power alone can change any situation that is threatening to America and the world. As Robert Kegan once put it, why reason with the bear if you can just shoot it? And yet the hunt for Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden didn't end the threat. It actually deepened the crisis, increased the number of terrorists, put American lives in danger, and weakened pro-US regimes.
The new project embraces diplomacy and political initiative. In the Baker-Hamilton report, unilateral diplomacy is replaced with multilateralism. The report advises US politicians to engage other countries in safeguarding Iraq's stability and unity. And it suggests an international conference for resolving the Palestinian issue.
In the old project, the US used to divide the world into allies and foes along 'you're either with us or against us' lines. In the new project, things are not that simple. There was a time in US history where Washington talked to China and the Soviet Union despite their differences. Now the US may finally engage Iran and Syria in talks and recognise their legitimate interests. This is step forward. And we all know that Iran has cooperated with the US in Afghanistan, just as Syria cooperated with the US in the fight against terror.
The new US report comes with many recommendations, some of which dovetail with what the Arabs have been saying for a long time. But it is important to examine that new project and see through it. It is important for us to decide if the new direction offers a lasting change in course or merely a damage-limitation ploy.
The new project offers two advantages to the Arabs. Firstly, the Baker-Hamilton report views the Iraqi problem in its regional context. This is important to the Arabs, who have strategic interests in Iraq and do not want to see sectarian strife spill across its borders. Secondly, the report recommends an international conference on the Arab- Israeli conflict, something that the Arabs have long requested.
Is it a serious project? Let's not forget that this is a report by a non-governmental body. Although President Bush promised to take it seriously, one cannot expect the neo-cons to give up that easily. After all, they still have Dick Cheney working within the administration and powerful lobbyists working outside the administration.
Israel saw the Baker-Hamilton report as a threat. It viewed it as an attempt to sacrifice its interests on the altar of US interests in Iraq. Soon after the report was released, Zionist pressure groups were railing against it, claiming that no Palestinian partner exists and that Syria and Iran would use the opportunity to expand, obtain nuclear arms, and bring Lebanon under their thumb. This was to be expected. But what matters now is not just what the Americans want. What matters is for the Arabs to come up with a plan of their own. How long would that take? One can only wonder.