The Bush administration is between Iraq and a hard place when it comes to Pakistan. The administration has long claimed that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, but most experts agree that while the U.S. has been bogged down in Iraq, al-Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the lawless regions of Pakistan, essentially turning large portions of the country into bases of operations for its international insurgency. The turmoil and instability in Pakistan does not bode well for Western efforts to discredit and defeat the forces of extremism. Indeed, to the extent that Washington’s ally, General Pervez Musharaff, adopts draconian and extra-legal tactics to maintain his tenuous grip on power, then the idea of democracy and all things American will suffer yet another setback in the eyes of the masses in the region.
The invasion and botched occupation of Iraq will probably go down in history as one of the greatest strategic blunders in all of military history. It remains to be seen of course, whether or not the Bush administration’s misjudgment will end up instigating a regional conflagration, or even WWIII. What is clear, however, is that the U.S. invasion has succeeded in making the most volatile region of the planet even more unstable. Will Turkey invade Iraq? Will the United States strike Iran? Will Pakistan explode? And what happens if Musharaff falls and extremists get their hands on the Bomb? You can be sure that U.S. contingency plans include the possibility Special Forces operations inside Pakistan to try and prevent that nightmare scenario from happening.
All of this falls on the heels of Israel’s apparently successful raid on a Syrian nuclear facility. No doubt, hawks in the administration, especially Dick Cheney, will tout the Israeli operation as proof that preemption still works. The problem, of course, is no one can calculate how a preemptive military strike against Iran (which would be the Bush administration’s second unprovoked attack against a Muslim country) will complicate American interests in Iraq, Pakistan, and the wider Middle East. An attack could set back Iran’s nuclear program months or even years, but at the cost of destabilizing Pakistan to the point where extremists get their hands on nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration’s approach to the Middle East is now widely seen as incoherent. That is, the administration pushed democracy in Iraq, which led to anarchy. And now the administration’s foreign policy fortunes depend on Musharaff’s ability to use his dictatorial powers to stave of anarchy.
At one time the Bush administration did have a coherent plan for the Middle East, but that vision hinged on succeeding fairly quickly in Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney both expected U.S. troops would be out of Iraq in a matter of months after the fall of Saddam, which would have allowed them to turn their attention to Iran. The road to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they believed, went through Baghdad, Tehran, and possibly Damascus. In other words, once regime changes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria were complete, then the Palestinians would have no choice but to sue for peace on Israel’s terms. America’s benign hegemony in the Persian Gulf would mean cheaper gas for American consumers, greater profits for American companies able to invest in and market their products in the Middle East, as well as the end of radical Islam as Muslims embraced consumerism instead of terrorism.
The Bush administration’s vision of a new Middle East hinged on America’s ability to leverage its military power to transform the cultural landscape in the Persian Gulf. Military might, however, is a blunt instrument. Furthermore, war always engenders unintended consequences; no strategist can possibly account for all the variables at play. Thus, the best laid plans of mice and men . . . can quickly lead to ruin when one follows the path of war.
The growing chaos and instability in the Middle East reflects the Bush administration’s disastrously flawed approach to geopolitics. In a nutshell, the Bush administration nakedly imperial ambitions in Iraq have undermined the institutions and ideas that support collective security, international law, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. In short, the painstaking efforts to build an international system dedicated to keeping the peace were purposively undermined in favor of the Neoconservative dream of a Pax Americana. The result, however, is a reversion to the “might makes right” mind-set that characterized the colonial system that led to numerous imperial conflicts, including two world wars.
It’s easy to criticize the U.N., international law, and the Geneva Conventions, but every American president since Woodrow Wilson, save George W. Bush, has understood that world peace depends on multilateralism and consensus building rather than unilateralism and the dictates of individual states pursuing their hegemonic ambitions. However imperfect the post WW II international system was, it nevertheless helped prevent a third world war and was vastly preferable to the carnivorous colonial system that existed beforehand. Tragically, the Bush administration unilateral policies and its disregard for international law have set the stage for the kind of zero-sum conflicts associated with the imperial era.
Ironically, the Middle East, which was carved up by the colonial powers after the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire following WW I, is likely to be ground zero for a new wave of colonial carnage as great powers (U.S., China, and Russia) and regional actors(Iran, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda) scurry for advantage in the competition over energy and military resources.
The genie is out of the bottle. Undoing the damage the invasion of Iraq has done to American credibility and strategic interests would be like trying to put toothpaste back in a tube once it has been squeezed out. In Pakistan, the Bush administration has cast its lot with Musharaff, but the general has suspended the constitution in the name of fighting terrorism. In fact, he’s arresting human rights activists, political opponents, and jurists that refuse to ratify his unconstitutional power grab. Musharaff, by the way, insists that those who are calling for more democracy in Pakistan don’t understand his country; clearly the general believes that more democracy would empower Islamic extremists. Musharaff might be right, at least in the short term. It is clear, however, that the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda, which was always something of a cover for its imperial agenda, is coming apart at the seams.