Bush’s New Middle East

If only the gathering discontent over Iraq could be tidily relegated to the “against us” corner of the world; if only allies could be shocked and awed into consenting to U.S. policies; if only democracy could be established by the point of a gun, then President Bush could declare his preemptive war doctrine a triumph.

The Bush administration had said before invading Iraq in March 2002 that the war would facilitate a democratic renaissance in the Middle East. It is therefore important to look at just what the regional impact has been, particularly since Saddam’s allegedly fearsome WMD arsenal (the administration’s main causus belli) has not been found.

While the Bush administration deserves credit for successfully negotiating Libya’s recent decision to allow nuclear inspections (though the program doesn’t appear to have been advanced), America’s allies in the Middle East claim that the terrorist threat in their own countries has escalated in part as a result of the Iraq war. And America’s relationships with allies have noticeably weakened, with friendships that were once bankable now appearing ambiguous.

During a recent trip to Washington, Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia raised concerns about the potential impact of the Iraq war on his country and others. Given the combination of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the lack of movement on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Mr. Yahia is quoted as saying, “For the time being, the preliminary analysis is not so good in our region…Without a solution [on these fronts] there has developed a kind of substance which is contaminating a number of countries.” This “accumulation phenomenon,” said Mr. Yahia, provides “an excuse for those who use terror” rather than negotiation. Mr. Yahia also said that Tunisia’s “secret weapon” against terror has been the building of schools, clinics, electricity infrastructure and roads, and the use of “brains, more than bullets.”

Tunisia has been a strong counter-terror ally for the United States and a credible, stabilizing voice on Mideast matters. Tunisia’s interests in the Middle East largely converge with those of the United States. Its concerns over rising terrorism and a general radicalization of Muslim populations should be taken seriously.

Turkey has also been raising pointed reservations. During a trip to Washington last month, Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ugur Ziyal expressed his country’s concerns over U.S. strategy in Iraq. “People must believe that change is driven by them,” he said, “This is what’s missing in Iraq.” He also said, “The difference is, as the foreign minister said at the [Organization of the Islamic Conference], we encourage the OIC members and the governments in their region to clean their houses, instead of trying to clean their houses for them.”

Mr. Ziyal also suggested that America wasn’t heeding all of Turkey’s concerns regarding Iraq. “Our cooperation in Iraq is less than satisfactory,” in terms of exchange of information and coordinated strategizing on issues related to, for example, Iraqi leadership, he said.

“Some people on the [Iraqi Governing Council] are not leaders,” Mr. Ziyal added. He also obliquely asserted that Turkey’s recent problems with terrorism are a result, in part, of the Iraq war: “We know that terrorism is not there solely because of the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.”

Though Turkey allowed America to reopen a military base along the border with Iraq last week, it has also raised an alarm about the potential repercussions of granting Kurdish autonomy in Iraq – a concern Syria and Iran share. In addition, Turkey has been calibrating its alliances recently in an effort to distance itself from some U.S. policies and to bolster ties with other countries in the Middle East – including some the Bush administration doesn’t approve. Syrian President Bashar Assad earlier this month became the first Syrian head of state to visit Turkey since World War II, demonstrating Turkey’s newfound willingness to stray from U.S. posturing.

Turkey’s drift from the United States is worrisome. Turkey is a democracy, critical NATO ally, and America’s most stalwart friend in the Muslim world.

The Turks have an acquired understanding of Iraq, and their skepticism regarding U.S. tactics should be sounding alarms in Washington. It is premature to pass final judgment on the effects of the Iraq campaign on the Middle East and beyond, but so far, most of the unintended consequences have been conspicuously negative.

On the other hand, the problems (some quite severe) that the war has caused for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, for example, have led the United States to significantly bolster its engagement in South Asia, with some encouraging results in the Pakistani-India peace initiative.

But if previously stable countries, such as Turkey, are forced to face a ferocious terrorist threat as a result, at least in part, because of the Iraq war, the United States could be blamed. And the damage done to America’s alliances could have lasting consequences.

Ximena Ortiz is the recipient of the Pulliam Editorial Fellowship, and is writing a book about the policy repercussion of the Iraq war: The War, According to the World.