2005 was surely a momentous year in the Middle East. It began with Iraq’s first truly democratic elections in January, saw Lebanon bring an end to three decades of Syrian occupation in its “Cedar Spring,” followed by Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal of all Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip to close out the summer, and is ending with unprecedented if violence-marred votes in Egypt, and yet again, in Iraq. But as the continuing problems in all these countries makes clear, the long-term prospects for peace, freedom and democracy in the region are by no means assured. If the president wants to organize a true “mission accomplished” celebration in 2006, here are five resolutions he, and the country as a whole, would do well to make for the near year:
1. Own up to our past—and our present.
President Bush initiated a potential sea change in our foreign policy when he admitted two years ago that “sixty years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.” But despite the Bush Administration’s increasingly prominent rhetoric supporting democracy and freedom in the region, the reality is that the United States still has not owned up to its crucial role (and before it, Europe’s) in establishing—and today perpetuating—the authoritarian and corrupt systems the President says he wants to transform.
But it’s not just the President; the American people need to take the next year to become much better informed about the history and present realities of American foreign policy in the Middle East, which are only hinted at by the problems surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq. As it stands, Muslims know this history much better than we do; this is a major source of the disconnect between how we and they view America’s role in the world.
2. Walk the Talk.
Last year while traveling in Iraq an elderly lawyer sat me down and, after quoting Jefferson and Franklin, asked me, “If these are your heroes, What in God’s name are you doing to us in Iraq?” A similar question is asked of me often in my travels across the Middle East and Muslim world: “America has such great ideals; why don’t you walk the talk?” In 2006 America needs to decide: Are we going to continue to have a set of policies in which lofty rhetoric is rarely matched by actual US support for real democratic change? Or is the US finally going to live up to its highest ideals?
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Every year that we continue to occupy Iraq and support corrupt and autocratic regimes across Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia the power of militant Islam will grow, as will the capability of terrorists to hit us with increasingly powerful weapons. To really shake up the situation in the Middle East, the US should begin a process of cutting off all military and non-humanitarian economic aid to any country in the region that is not making persuasive progress towards democratization and ending abuses of the people under its control. Doing so will radically change the position of the US in the eyes of the Muslim world and help change many people we presently view as our enemies into allies, and perhaps even friends.
3. Tell Iraq we have no plans to have long term bases in their country.
One of the most destabilizing dynamics of our presence in Iraq, and the most important fuel for the insurgency, is that Iraqis believe that we have no intention of leaving the country for the foreseeable future. They see the huge bases we’ve built, and hear American military leaders and politicians refusing to say that the US will leave, even a dozen years from now. If America wants to change the dynamic in Iraq towards a peaceful resolution of the insurgency, we need to utter the magic words: “The United States does not desire any long term bases in Iraq and will withdraw all troops at the earliest possible moment.”
4. Withdraw the majority of US troops from the country before the end of 2006.
Nothing will better convince Iraqis that we really don’t want their bases and oil than withdrawing the majority of US troops in the coming year. As Rep. John Murtha and so many others convincingly argue, the large US presence is a major reason for the chaos and insurgency, not a check against it. And besides, if the situation becomes appreciably worse, we could certainly send in reinforcements if asked to by a legitimately elected government. But ultimately this is Iraq’s fight to win; if the Iraqi people can’t come together to end this insurgency on their own in 2006, then we won’t be able to do it for them, now or in 2016.
5. Embrace the world, and our children’s future.
President Bush captured the raw emotions felt by most Americans in the wake of 9/11 when he exclaimed to the world that “You’re either with us or against us.” But while it might have made us feel better, such language, and the go it alone policies it reflected, have hurt America far more than Osama bin Laden ever could. Indeed, whether justifying indefinite detention and mistreatment of prisoners (many, and perhaps most of whom have had nothing to do with terrorism), supporting autocratic and corrupt regimes, selling tens of billions of dollars of weapons across the Muslim and larger developing world, committing a pitiful amount of money to fighting poverty and disease, or refusing to own up to the reality of global warming and our role in causing it, American policies have led people across the globe to view the US as a threat to world order, peace and prosperity, rather than its guarantor, as we imagine ourselves to be.
However unjustified Americans might feel these sentiments to be, they are rooted in the experiences of American power by hundreds of millions of people during the “American century.” Karen Hughes or even Condi Rice cannot change them, even with the help of a squadron of marketers, propagandists and their military handlers. Rather, the negative attitudes towards the United States will only change if we acknowledge and substantively transformation our policies in the immediate future. We need real changes—not just towards the war on terror and Iraq, but towards the two greatest scourges of our age: widespread poverty and inequality (and the worldwide health crises they nurture), and global warming and the environmental devastation it is undeniably causing.
The war against terror is not yet lost, but the score card is not encouraging. Making matters worse is that the world is becoming more crowded, unhealthy, poor and chaotic with each new year. Even the most powerful country in history will not be able to prevent terror, poverty, climate change and disease from wreaking havoc on its citizens in the not too distant future. If the President wants to ensure a lasting and positive legacy, he needs to show new vision in 2006. The world will stand for nothing less, and neither should we.