Gasoline for the Fire

Like a gambling addict who has to keep betting more to cover his previous losses, the Bush administration’s recently announced plan to provide some $65 billion worth of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel over the next 10 years represents a reckless, poorly considered attempt to mitigate the consequences of its ill considered invasion of Iraq. The deal also represents an admission of failure of several of the key elements of U.S. security policy in the Middle East, and, perhaps most significantly, it represents a clear abandonment of President Bush’s democratic reform agenda in the region.

Bush’s plan to increase arms to the region is an admission of failure on several fronts. The first, and most obvious, is the failure of the invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein to have any positive effect in the region. No one denies that Saddam was a brutal ruler (he certainly was one when he enjoyed U.S. support) but it’s clear now that a military invasion and occupation was not the appropriate way to deal with the potential (at worst) threat that he represented. During Iran’s massively destructive eight year war with Iraq, Iran’s ruling mullahs could not in their wildest dreams have imagined a victory over Iraq as complete as that which was provided them by the U.S. in 2003, paid in the treasure of U.S. taxpayers, and the blood and limbs of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. It was always a fantasy that a democratic, Shia-dominated, Iraq would tilt toward the Sunni Arab world and Israel, rather than Shia Iran. Yet this was the imagined outcome for the neoconservative planners of Bush’s Iraq policy. Reality has proved otherwise.

The militarization of the region through the proposed sales represents, to some extent, a repudiation of the principle of nuclear deterrence, specifically in regard to Israel. Though it has never officially admitted having nuclear weapons, it is understood that Israel does, in fact, have nuclear capability. This policy of “strategic ambiguity” is justified by Israel on the grounds that it is surrounded by enemies, such as Iran, who want to destroy Israel. It’s unclear how providing $30 billion of sophisticated new weaponry would enhance Israel’s security in a way that a nuclear arsenal could not. As Zbigniew Brzezinski asked at a security conference this June, “If the Israeli nuclear arsenal — some 200 weapons capable of destroying Iran if Iran were to attack Israel — is not a sufficient and credible deterrent, than what is it for?”

Israel already has the most powerful and technologically advanced military in the region. If Iran wouldn’t be deterred by Israel’s nuclear weapons, why would they be deterred by some new laser-guide bombs? And if new-laser guided bombs do the trick, what then is the justification for having nuclear weapons?

The arms deal lends credence to some of al-Qaeda’s worst claims about the United States’ intentions. Indeed it seems designed to confirm the Arab and Islamic world’s darkest belief about America: that we are actively fomenting war in the land of Islam in order to control the oil that lies beneath. Having upset the balance of power in the region by removing Saddam Hussein, empowering Iran by removing the most significant check on their regional hegemony, and having transformed Iraq into a terrorist training ground, the United States now proposes to supply new weapons to its allies in the region to help them deal with the new security environment which it created.

In Iraq, the U.S. is arming Sunni forces against Iranian-backed Shia militias, and Shia forces against Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda elements, based upon dubious assurances that our Iraqi allies will not turn their weapons against each other. Whatever the strategic justifications and short-term advantages of arming the various factions within Iraq, the Arab public sees only the continued death and dismemberment, sent to them hour by hour, via satellite, in living and dying color. It’s hard to imagine a better way to cultivate hatred of the U.S. than announcing that we intend to essentially reproduce this strategy throughout the region.

The arms deal strengthens Iranian hardliners who see no benefit in cooperating with the U.S. in Iraq, and who, having drawn from the Iraq invasion precisely the opposite of Bush’s intended lesson, support the continued pursuit by Iran of a nuclear capability as insurance against eventual U.S. attack.

Finally, and most significantly, the arms deal represents a repudiation of the democracy agenda that President Bush insisted would be central to his Middle East policy after 9/11. In response to questions about the deal, Secretary of State Rice said that the U.S. is “working with these states to give a chance to the forces of moderation and reform.” One might ask, as is surely being asked by those who suffer under these regimes: Where? In Saudi Arabia, a kleptocratic monarchy that supports its own illegitimate rule by buying off its extremist religious establishment, a religious establishment which exports a violent anti-Western ideology? In Egypt, where democratic activists and critics of the regime such as Ayman Nour and blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman sit in prison, and authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak, after more than two decades of “emergency” dictatorial powers, is finally preparing to leave the presidency — to his son, as an inheritance? In Israel, where a brutal forty years-long military occupation, the construction of illegal settlements, and the destruction of Palestinian homes and lives by American-made bombs and bulldozers, continues?

Rather than simply arming these governments against the consequences of his bad judgment, Bush must consider a serious change of course in his Middle East policy led by putting real diplomatic muscle behind his rhetoric of freedom. The president’s post-9/11 promises to promote democratic reform were met with genuine, if skeptical enthusiasm in the Middle East, which waned considerably in the subsequent years, and which has now surely all but dissipated. This enthusiasm must be rekindled.

A responsible new policy would promote the measured opening of political systems in the Middle East. Rather than simply strengthening regimes that were themselves responsible for the radicalization of many of the Islamic militants we are now fighting, we should strengthen political freedom, and encourage the participation of groups from across the political spectrum, even groups hostile to the United States. Most importantly, we must show ourselves willing to support a results-oriented process through which Arabs can develop their unique cultural and political identities. It will be difficult, and it will take years. But it’s surely a better plan than adding gasoline to an already raging fire.

Matt Duss holds a Masters in Middle East Studies from the University of Washington and is an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus.