US foreign policy and regime change in Iraq

An acute cynicism is sweeping the Arab world in response to Washington’s stated interest in the democratization of post-Saddam Iraq. And this is not unjustified, given Washington’s record in the region. The US entered the world of Middle East politics after World War II with little real sense of the history of the place or clear ideas of the role it should play there. Washington’s policy toward the region was driven by three compelling interests: preventing the expansion of Soviet influence, maintaining the flow of oil at reasonable prices to the Western world, and helping Israel defend its security. While trying to serve these interests Washington was faced with the critical question of how it should deal with forces in Middle Eastern countries pressing for change of the established order. Since these forces were often led by nationalist leaders with no established communication channels with Western governments – who tended to be suspicious of the West and its economic interests in the region, who argued for the nationalization of the oil industry, who were hostile to Israel, and who seemed to prefer a policy of non-alignment – the US increasingly sided with the traditional elites. These elites, whom the modernizers opposed, were happy to cooperate closely with Washington because they saw American support as essential for their political and economic survival. At the same time they seemed able to provide the stability which the Americans sought for the success of their regional policies. With the hindsight of 50 years one can conclude that US policy was largely successful in serving American interests in the region. Nonetheless, it did not achieve the desired regional stability more than superficially, nor was it free of charge, as it gave rise to a widely spread and deeply felt anti-Americanism. The pressure for change, which the USA has chosen to sidestep for 50 years, has not ebbed. On the contrary, it is still growing and threatens grave instability under the influence of a militant Islam which feeds into the accumulated dissatisfaction. The bottom line of the powerful mixture of often misplaced nationalism, activism for political and economic change and militant Islam is anti-Americanism (perhaps stronger than ever before), since domestic ills and external support for the long-discredited elites have become one in the minds of local opposition groups. The fact that following the Gulf War the US has clearly emerged as a power able to shape the region unchallenged, has further boosted anti-Americanism among part of the public. An attack against Iraq, being yet another sign of American supremacy, promises to make things worse unless the USA assists true political and economic progress in the post-Saddam era. In fact, if Washington supports moderate Iraqi forces favoring the true modernization of the country, a Saddam-free Iraq could present the USA with a unique opportunity to achieve an image-lift and defuse anti-American resentment in the region. Of course, the Bush administration is talking about nothing less than its wish for the democratization of Iraq. However, when Washington talks about democracy in Iraq, what it means is a moderate regime which is secular, pro-Western in general and pro-American in particular, not hostile to Israel and happy to coordinate its oil interests with those of the West. In an ideal scenario, such a regime also seeks the economic and political development of Iraq, but what if it does not? Cynical Arabs believe that Washington would then resort to its old Middle East policy textbook, i.e. simply cooperate with US-friendly power groups and show no interest in assisting Iraq’s modernization. If these cynics are proved right the US will be feeding the beast of long-term instability, reinforcing anti-Americanism in the region and the world with unpredictable future consequences. While clearly the US has to protect its long-standing regional policy priorities – oil and Israel – it is essential that it balances them with its broader political interests in the region. This demands both a more flexible and open-minded approach vis-à-vis these priorities and support for the modernization of the Middle East based on a clear distinction between forces that really threaten American interests and those that tend only to challenge them. (1) Senior research fellow, Hellenic Foundation of European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).