WASHINGTON - The normally cool - if not coldly analytical - Anthony Cordesman
was uncharacteristically heated as he warmed to his subject.
”It may be excusable as a fantasy of some Israelis reacting to the trauma of the Second Intifada. As American policy, however, it crosses the line between neo-conservative and neo-crazy.''
Cordesman, a Mideast specialist at the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here, was speaking about the latest rationale offered with increasing insistence by forces both within the administration of President George W. Bush and outside it for invading Iraq: the notion that ousting President Saddam Hussein would result in a flourishing of democracy, not just in Iraq but through the entire Middle East.
Hailed by some commentators as the new ''Wilsonian'' thrust of Bush's foreign policy, the idea has been gradually embraced by the administration itself.
Just last week, Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told the
Financial Times that the U.S. military should be seen as ''liberators'' when it
moves on Iraq, and that the administration was devoted to ”democratization,
or the march of freedom in the Muslim world”. Vice President Dick Cheney
has said much the same thing in recent weeks.
The idea is meant above all to appeal to the more idealistic instincts of the U.S. public. In that respect, it counter-balances the arguably baser reasons that have been more frequently invoked by leaders here to justify waging war on a foreign country and ousting its leader: that Saddam has the means, and the intent, to launch a devastating nuclear, biological or chemical attack on the United States at any moment, or, in a more sinister vein, that he is the secret puppeteer behind Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
The Wilsonian rationale, which takes its name from former president Woodrow Wilson - ironically a champion of international law whose aim in the First World War was to ''make the world safe for democracy” - has been championed almost since last year's Sep.. 11 terrorist attacks by a small group of neo-conservatives with close ties to the right-wing Likud Party in Israel.
The group, which is concentrated at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a major think tank whose ranks include, among others, Cheney's wife Lynne and the chairman of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board (DPB), Richard Perle, has long argued for extending the ''war on terrorism'' far beyond Afghanistan and al-Qaeda to Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestine Authority (PA) of Yasser Arafat and even Washington's long-time ally, Saudi Arabia.
''What (the Bush administration) has in mind is a broad vision,” says Meyrav Wurmser, who directs Mideast policy at the Hudson Institute but works closely with Perle, ”which really involves changing the character of the Middle East.''
If Saddam can be overthrown in an overwhelming show of force, the argument goes, then all of the autocracies that have dominated the Arab world, resisting democratic reform and peace with Israel, will themselves totter and collapse to popular pressures, creating a domino effect from Iran in the east, clear across North Africa as far as Libya.
The idea has been strongly embraced by Israel's Likud. In testimony before Congress two weeks ago, for example, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu waxed eloquent for hours before a mostly fawning group of lawmakers.
''So I think that the choice of going after Iraq is like removing a brick that holds a lot of other bricks and might cause this structure to crumble,'' he said, focusing particularly on Iran, which he said was ready for a new revolution.
The former prime minister, a frequent guest at AEI, even cited the great German
philosopher, Immanuel Kant, to support his view that an across-the-board democratization
of the region was the only way to guarantee peace between Israel and its neighbors.
Netanyahu's focus on Iran as the next target for the war on terrorism echoed the views of Perle's AEI colleague, Michael Ledeen, a former anti-terrorism adviser to the administration of former president Ronald Reagan, who helped broker the original arms-for-weapons deal that underpinned what became the Iran-Contra affair.
Since the Teheran government was rocked by spontaneous protests one year ago, Ledeen has repeatedly written that Iran is ripe for a pro-U.S. revolution, even suggesting in newspaper articles this month that Iran might even precede Iraq as a target, presumably for covert action.
''With a triumph in Iran, the democratic revolution would quickly gain allies in Syria and Iraq and transform our war against Saddam Hussein from a primarily military operation to a war of national liberation against a hated regime.''
''This war cannot be limited to national theatres,'' cautioned Ledeen, who is also a founder and board member of another neo-conservative group, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
''We face a regional challenge and must respond accordingly. We are the one truly revolutionary country on earth, which is both the reason for which we were attacked in the first place and the reason we will successfully transform the lives of millions of people throughout the Middle East.''
What makes this ambition and line of reasoning so interesting is not only its origin among outspoken ”Likudniks”, who have long opposed not only the Oslo accords but the whole ''land for peace'' formula that has formed the basis of U.S. Mideast policy since 1967.
It is also the contrast between the hopes expressed on behalf of the Arabs and Muslims who are supposed to benefit from this policy and the contempt in which the same beneficiaries are held by their self-described champions.
Thus, another AEI ”scholar'' and former CIA officer, Reuel Marc Gerecht,
who takes the same line on democratization, has repeatedly argued that power and
force are the only language understood in the Muslim world.
Months ago, for example, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon moved to re-occupy West Bank towns and cities, Gerecht exulted, ''the tougher Sharon becomes, the stronger our image will be in the Middle East''.
Netanyahu echoed that view before Congress: the political culture in the region's societies ''is not one of respecting force; it is worshipping force, and the determination, resolution of the United States in applying it”.
This, indeed, may be the other side of the democratization coin, according
to a number of observers.
There is ”something hypocritical about the belief in democratization
when it is expounded by people who also hold the belief in the 'clash of civilizations',
who were insisting a few months ago that there are regions of the world, particularly
the Islamic regions, in which culture makes freedom impossible”, noted the
normally neo-conservative 'New Republic' recently.
The political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, who coined the term "clash of
civilizations'" with respect to the current global context, is one of the AEI's
As for Cordesman and other Mideast experts, both the people who now champion
democratization as the rationale for war against Iraq and the vehemence with which
they continue to attack Arab and Islamic societies ''threaten to turn democratization
into a four-letter word.''
© Copyright 2002 IPS