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America transforms the Middle East, but not as envisioned

IN ONE WAY, the Bush administration's Middle East policies from Iraq to Israel have been a smashing success. The watchword with which Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Condoleezza Rice defined the agenda they laid before a pliant George W. Bush was ``transformative." A new strategy of unilateral action, applied with overwhelming force and preemptive strikes, and focused on protecting access to Persian Gulf oil, would transform the entire region. Upon invading Iraq, US troops would be greeted with flowers. A post-Saddam Hussein democracy in Iraq would spark democratic reforms throughout the Arab world. Fundamentalist Muslims would be discredited. Palestinians and Israelis would come to terms. Iran, faced with ascendant American power, would retreat from its revolution. As for weapons of mass destruction, with nonproliferation replaced by ``counter-proliferation," rogue nations would heel. Best of all, terrorism would be defeated on its home battlefield. America militant and triumphant. Those not supporting this new order would be sorry.

Who's sorry now? Washington was poised to take full credit for the realization of its transformative fantasy in the Middle East. Can Washington accept responsibility for the transformative catastrophe that its new strategic doctrine is even now bringing about? Start with Iraq. ``Without Saddam," Wolfowitz predicted in 2002, ``Iraq can have perhaps the best government in the Arab world." With civilian deaths lately running at an average of 100 a day, at what point will the Bush administration acknowledge that Iraq has, instead, a tragic civil war? ``Tyrants respond to toughness," Rice declared ahead of the US invasion . In Iraq, the brutal tyrant is gone. But, under US sponsorship, the Iraqi people now brutalize one another, tribally. The tyrant was replaced by the tyranny of toughness.

That tyranny lives in Israel's brutal -- and increasingly inexcusable -- air war against Lebanon. Israel is wrong, but unlike Washington, it faces a threat that is real. Hezbollah, with support from Iran and Syria, signals the return of an open Arab determination to eliminate the Jewish state. The extremes of Israel's visceral defensiveness are properly denounced as unjustified, given the Jewish state's overwhelming military superiority. But the fresh intensification of hatred of ``Zionists" among vast populations of Arabs poses an existential danger to Israel that transcends any military resolution. The Israeli government and those who condemn it both overestimate the value of Israel's arsenal. Hezbollah's successes show that. Meanwhile, bombs killing innocents do not weaken Israel's enemies, but empower them. Now hatred of the Jewish state has reached critical mass, a threat that would not go away even if Israel were to ``moderate" its responses.

Here is the real meaning of the catastrophe that the Bush administration is bringing about. The prewar naïveté of US planners, enshrined in the much-noted Bernard Lewis/Samuel Huntington alarms, assumed that the defining ``other" of the civilizational clash was a univocal enemy -- ``Islam." Washington had no idea that Islam, in its Middle East manifestation, was an atom waiting to be split. A sectarian argument had divided followers of Mohammed not long after his death, and that conflict defined the Muslim tradition. Shi'ites (implying ``faction") and Sunnis (implying ``lawful") had savaged each other in the 16th and 17th centuries, a violent intolerance that scholars compare to the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in the same period. Who knew this? In the colonial and post-colonial periods, with the coming of secularism and the rule of Western-sponsored tyrants, Sunni and Shi'ite tensions had been held, whether through accident or despotic control, in fragile balance. How fragile, no one in Washington knew.

Shi'ites are the Islamic minority, but their political ambition made its powerful comeback with the 1978-79 revolution in Iran, launching a search for polity that would be modern as well as Islamic. Surprising many, democracy then took root in Iran, with even some pro-Western leaders elected, but Washington saw only one pole of an ``axis of evil." That Bush pronouncement in 2002 was the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy, as Iran next fell to its own fringe. The other evil pole, of course, was the Sunni regime of Saddam, and wasn't the axis sent spinning then? The civil war in Iraq -- Sunnis, Shi'ites, 17th-century savagery, 21st-century explosives -- is one result. Israel's war against newly enflamed forces of the Bush-created ``Shi'ite crescent" is the other. The innovative character of what Bush has wrought is laid bare, of course, by the fact that some Sunni-led Arab states with their own restive Shi'ites are as threatened by this new level of chaos as Israel is. Now that's transformative.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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