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 Thursday, 2 January, 2003, 07:25 GMT
Viewpoint: The Arab cost of war
BBC News Online has asked a range of contributors to comment on the Iraq crisis.

Here, Professor Shibley Telhami argues that in the aftermath of a possible war, the Middle East would be more repressive and unstable than it is today.

Arab public opinion is passionately opposed to the war, but it is going to be very difficult for Arab governments to be opposed in a significant and meaningful way.

Therefore, they have two choices - to support the war or appear to be relatively neutral.

Governments are essentially unleashing their security forces to make arrests and to ensure that no one organises any significant opposition

The only way to maintain their course and prevent public discontent is to be more repressive. We can see this already. Most people in the region believe war has become inevitable, and governments are essentially unleashing their security forces to make arrests and to ensure that no one organises any significant opposition.

The governments feel more vulnerable this time than during the last Gulf War because they do not have full control of the media. A decade ago, you could argue that they had a near monopoly on the media and used this to shape public opinion and reduce the level of anger.

But now, because of trans-national television - the al-Jazeera phenomenon and the CNN phenomenon - it is harder for the governments to sell only one side of the story.

They are feeling less secure, but I don't think this means there will be a revolution - revolutions are scarce in the Middle East. The regimes will be successful this time around, but the cost of that success will be more repression, at least in the short term.

I don't doubt that America is interested in democracy in the Middle East - in fact its interest might be stronger today than ever.

Previously, the US followed a policy that broadly overlooked what governments in the region did internally, as long as ultimately they supported the US.

But, there is now an increasing awareness that what happens inside does matter. Many Americans believe that what happened on 11 September was a function of that system.

There will be more terrorist attacks and America is going to need a lot of regional support for the war on terror

So in that sense, it is true that there is an American interest in seeing a profound change in the region. But the problem is going to be America's ability to make that a priority given the vital interests at stake.

Immediately after an overthrow of the Iraqi regime, the big issue for America will be staying in Iraq if it wants a say in what happens next.

It will probably have to leave a force of about 75,000 troops over an extended period of time. A lot of economic and political resources will have to be brought to bear to ensure a unified and stable Iraq.

US priorities

It will have to put a lot of effort in place to govern a state where there will be competing interests - north-south, ethnic, religious, supporters of the regime, opponents of the regime, the revenge factor.

America will have its priorities. First it will have to safeguard the lives of American troops. Second, it will need to assure the flow of oil at reasonable prices - no matter what happens in the Iraqi oil fields, it will take a while to drive up the production in Iraq, so the US is going to need the help of regional oil producers.

And third, it is likely there will be more terrorist attacks and America is going to need a lot of regional support for the war on terror.

Whose security forces and intelligence services do you need to fight that war? Those of the democratic forces on the street or those of the government? The US will desperately need the cooperation of the governments of the region.

Finally, to achieve its objective of ensuring a favourable outcome in Iraq, America will have to deal with Iraq's neighbours - Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iran have vital interests in Iraq, perhaps more vital that America's.

They are not going to stand on the sidelines. And America won't want them to become a menace to its policy in Iraq, so they will have the capacity to affect the outcome.

Given all of that, democracy will be a lower priority after the war.

Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. He is also author of The Stakes: America and the Middle East.

Professor Telhami was talking to Kathryn Westcott.

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Every Middle-Eastern desires to have a democratic rule in his country, but achieving democracy must come from inside these countries and not imposed by foreigners. The US faces a big dilemma here - it says it wants democratic regimes in the Middle-East, but it knows that the moment the people get a democratic government, US forces will be ousted from their countries due to the escalating anti-American feeling.
John Talhami, UK

I absolutely agree with Mr Telhami's comment, except for the idea might want to help democracy in the region. The US will never do that.
fahad, Saudi Arabia

The oppressive regimes that now rule most of the Middle East will do Bush's bidding because they are and have been fully supported by the US Government. Two clear proofs of this theory can be found in the US's attitude towards Nasser of Egypt and Dr Mossadeq of Iran, both of whom took power in the 50s. These leaders were, if anything, too democratic for the US Government because they wanted to nationalise their countries' resources. In both cases the US worked aggressively to put these countries back in the hand of their puppet dictators and in different degrees they succeeded in both accounts.
Paul, Canada

The people of Iraq are suffering under Saddam's regime but the rest of the Arab world would rather go to war against America than support the liberation of the Iraqi people, what is wrong with them?
Michael Pearce, UK

The last thing America wants is democracy in the Middle East, so let's stop pulling out the democracy card, the public is not naive. A democratic Middle East would see the Islamists gain power as they have successfully done in Turkey and Pakistan. Fundamental Islam would once again be implemented throughout the Arabian peninsular and beyond, with the Islamists controlling the largest known oil reserves in the world. Is this what America wants?
James, UK

All this talk of democracy in the Middle East, yet Western leaders pay no attention to the millions of their citizens clamouring for peace. Why does the word of one foreigner (Bush) mean more to Tony Blair than the voices of millions of British citizens?
J. Gomer, Wales, UK

This war is about one thing. That one thing is American interests - and in particular oil. It's plain to see that America will have to make much effort in a post-Saddam Iraq to secure its interests. War in Iraq will add to the already dreadful image of America in the Middle East and will go one step further to destabilising the region. The Muslims in the Middle East want regime change, so that they can challenge Western foreign policy, which makes the West rich at the expense of others
Ifty, UK

I don't doubt that many in the US and in the West in general are genuine in their wishes to see democracy in the Middle East. However, there's no indication that democratically elected governments would be more favourably inclined towards the Western world.
Hans Kristian, Norway

It is these oppressive regimes and the lack of democracy in the Middle East, that has led to the large support that Al-Qaeda "enjoys" in Arab countries. The regimes have failed their people in every way, and the people have suffered the worse human rights abuses. As all legitimate opposition has been destroyed, the only people remaining are the Islamic fundamentalists. Therefore, many people who would otherwise never think of supporting fundamentalism, now find it to be the only alternative. Therefore, the best way to win this war on terror would be to have full democratic and human rights in the Arab world.
Muneer, United Kingdom

Few understand the military-political implications of an attack on Iraq. Such an attack would: send a warning to all regimes that openly defy the US; divide Iran from Syria, making it more difficult for Hezbollah to operate; eliminate a major threat to the security of it's closest regional ally, Israel and guarantee strategic oil supplies from the Mid-East. From a geo-political viewpoint, these 4 reasons are rational and outweigh the usual objections. They show why Bush and Blair will attack Iraq. "Weapons of mass destruction" or "democracy" have nothing to do with it.
Isabel Treece, USA

The war against Iraq is inevitable simply because George W wants to wrap up his father's unfinished business over there. If it had anything to do with the war against terrorism, the US would be attacking Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who died on 9/11 were Saudis, Osama bin Laden is a Saudi, Al Quaeda is supported by Saudi money. However, because of the oil interest the US prefers to turn a blind eye to those facts and to the actions of the ruling regime in one of the world's most repressive countries - so much for supporting democracy.
Stu, UK

There is no doubt that promoting democracy in the Middle East, with or without toppling Saddam, will be fiendishly difficult. Nevertheless, we must do it. Even if one utterly rejects idealistic motives, it is the most practical long term solution to the current problems. Certainly, if we push democracy, things will get more difficult, and possibly worse, before they start getting better. But if we do not push democracy, they will just keep getting worse forever.
hank thayer, USA/Japan

The removal of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime would be good for the people of Iraq and for stability in the region - but only if it can be guaranteed that democracy can replace the power vacuum immediately. I am also suspicious of the policy of befriending one repressive regime, such as that in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to eliminate another. Supporting democracy in all Middle Eastern countries is the only way to end terrorist actions.
Ahmed Desai, United Kingdom

The only democracy in the whole region is Israel. At the beginning of the year, it was clear that attempts were made to secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians in order for the focus on Iraq to remain. That fact is, however, that Arab governments are happy for the conflict to drag on so that the attention of their own populations is taken off repression and poverty at home and instead focused on the Israeli/Palestinian issue. The US should be seen as actively engaging in the Middle East process in order to demonstrate that its interests are best served by peace in the whole region, and not by on-going conflicts.
Suki Singh, uk

True, the immediate costs of war, in the Middle East will only prove to many Arabs that the US is only interested in oil exports of the region, more specifically those controlled by Saddam. But removing him from power and trying to establish a new government could very well be successful as long as the UN supports and protects the interests of Iraq and its people and not just those of any Western nation looking for a new OPEC ally. We have seen that setting up a fledgling government in a turbulent Islamic nation has had mixed success, i.e. Afghanistan. In that case, though, it appeared that the US tried to allow the Afghan people to decide their own fate and allow them to work out their own politics. I fear that in the case of Iraq, the US will be much more involved in any elections and establishment of government. After all, the United States is heavily dependent on oil, and having sway over a large oil producer will indeed aid the ailing US economy. Iraq, once liberated and stabilised should be left by itself to work out its own system. Democracy should be brought to Iraq, but not by an invading power, but by the UN.
Jeremy Nelson, United States

It is imprecise to label the Arab world "unstable" and Professor Tilhami says just that, "revolutions are uncommon". Syria and Morocco have been ruled by the same clan for two generations, Jordan for three, Saudi Arabia for one and a half (since all of the rulers since Abdelaziz have been half brothers). Egypt, has been ruled by the same political party since the overthrow of the anaemic monarchy 50 years ago. The only place where there is instability is Algeria, where a ruling junta, with tacit Western support, has refused to hand over the power it lost in a fair election. The label "unstable" is a fiction perpetrated by those unfriendly to Arabs as such for their opposition to the state of Israel. The conventional myth is that of beleaguered Israel as a stable democracy in a sea of instability. The reality is that Israel has been governed by deadlocked minority coalitions for a generation or longer. The Arab states are if anything too stabile.
David Wilmsen, Egypt

Wouldn't the US win favour with its Arab allies if it gave them the peace-keeper role in Iraq once Saddam had been ousted - much the same way as they did with Turkey in Afghanistan.
Joseph Phillips, Sydney, Australia


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