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Rebuilding Iraq

Bush's postwar scenario debated

By John Donnelly and Geneive Abdo, Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent, 2/28/2003

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's critics said yesterday that his vision for a democratic Iraq and a peaceful Mideast is based on faulty ideology that will provoke resistance at every turn. But his supporters called Bush's plan historic, saying it starts a long march toward broad freedoms in the Middle East.

Supporters and foes alike agreed that the president's dream of a postwar Iraq that leads to the demise of Arab dictatorships and peace between Israelis and Palestinians is not likely to come true soon. Even his most ardent supporters said such a transformation could take decades.

Both sides agree, though, that Bush's speech is further proof that he has fully embraced the world view of the hawks in his administration, and that their vision could influence US foreign policy for years to come.

''The president made it very clear this is a much bigger project than merely disarming Saddam Hussein,'' said Kenneth H. Bacon, former Pentagon spokesman and now head of Refugees International in Washington. ''The president believes replacing Saddam Hussein will be a historical catalyst for change in the Middle East. It appears we are going to be involved in Iraq for a long time to come, and what he wants to achieve is very complex and will take a long while.''

Bacon expressed serious doubts. He cited Bush's pledge to help Iraqi refugees, but said that the UN Office of High Commissioner for Refugees is begging for money in rich countries now after receiving just $19 million in an emergency appeal for $60 million. He said that Bush's speech contained just two paragraphs devoted to a ''road map'' for peace among Israelis and Palestinians, and that it followed eight months of virtual silence on the issue.

On Bush's pledge to help rebuild Iraq, which came during a visit to Washington by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Bacon said that Afghanistan shows the difficulties of such work.

''In a speech like this, you expect a broad vision,'' Bacon said. ''I just wonder if it can happen.''

Danielle Pletka, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, the conservative think tank that hosted Bush's speech Wednesday night, said some of those who criticized the president's lofty goals were ''visionless and cynical.''

''If back in the '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s we hadn't fought for the liberation of the captives of the Soviet Union, they wouldn't be free now. You have to start down the road at some point,'' she said.

Many Middle East specialists do contend that growth of democracy in the Middle East would probably mean growth of Islamic influence in politics -- a consequence that the Bush team does not appear to recognize. And analysts said they doubted the Bush administration would favor a new wave of elected Islamic leaders replacing pro-American dictators.

''I really don't think the Bush administration wants democracy in the region, because if you had free elections, the Islamists would win in many countries,'' said Marina Ottaway, codirector of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. ''So those in the administration who say they want democracy obviously don't understand what the result of this would be.''

Ottaway, who recently returned from a tour of the Middle East, said that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and the buildup for a war against Iraq have left the United States with an absence of partners willing to accept US help in building democracy. In his speech, Bush said, ''Arab intellectuals have called on Arab governments to address the freedom gap,'' but Ottaway said it is not so simple.

''Those who could be part of this campaign -- the Westernized Arab intellectuals -- are now overwhelmingly anti-American,'' she said.

Mohammad Wahby, an Egyptian columnist based in Washington, said Arabs resent the notion of democracy imposed from the outside.

''You feel that Bush has come up with this idea of democracy right now before going to war with Iraq,'' he said. ''He wants to assure the Iraqis that they will have democracy, and he has a whole program. The impression is that the US will be there for as long as it is necessary. Bush's words, `as long as it is necessary,' frightens people. The message is that they will rule Iraq, not help Iraqis.''

Others questioned Bush's view that success in Iraq could ''set in motion'' a democratic state of Palestine, or that the removal of Hussein would deny Palestinian terror groups a major source of funding. Instead, several analysts perceived a strong pro-Israel bias in the speech because Bush continues to accept the principle of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel that progress toward peace can only occur once the threat of terror is gone.

On Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, Bush said only that land confiscations must end after ''progress is made toward peace.'' In the last two years, the population of Israeli settlements has grown to 225,000 people from 200,000, according to the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a Washington think tank that supports a two-state solution.

''In terms of settlements, this was not a path-breaking speech by the president,'' said Geoffrey Aronson, director of the foundation. ''His view is that when people in the region see the bad guys dead, that will have an effect on everyone else -- at least that's the message to Yasser Arafat.'' Arafat, Aronson said, is one Arab leader who was democratically elected in a 1996 vote.

Pletka, the American Enterprise Institute scholar, agreed that a successful war against Iraq would send blunt messages to Arab leaders. But she said those messages also would reach ordinary people, and she believes that was the power in Bush's speech.

''If a new Iraq government stops sending $10,000 or $25,000 to relatives of suicide bombers, does that mean the Saudis will stop sending money to suicide bombers' families? Well, no,'' she said. ''But maybe at the grass-roots level, people will begin saying, `Well, my school roof is falling, why are you sending $50,000 to Palestinians when we need to get our roof fixed?' ''

Pletka said, however, that change would happen in fits and starts. ''If people don't know what the possibilities are, and they don't see them, they will never ask the questions,'' she said. ''Maybe it won't work perfectly, but does that mean we shouldn't try?''

John Donnelly can be reached at Geneive Abdo can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/28/2003.
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