The US-led occupation of Iraq not only affects the lives of people in Baghdad, Mosul and Najaf, but also in New York, Seattle and Los Angeles.
Failure to adequately rebuild Iraq could yield profoundly devastating consequences for US national security.
Likewise, the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a diplomatic powder keg in which the US is a key player, could inflame anti-US sentiments and make it an even bigger target for “terrorism“.
In a post-9/11 world, oceans are no longer enough to insulate Americans from the problems, both large and small, in a once distant region.
“Americans finally realise that events that sounded rather mundane like unemployment and misery in Gaza or the educational system in Saudi Arabia… that these kinds of developments could have a direct impact on the lives of Americans,” said David Mack a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
“In effect, US foreign policy toward the Middle East didn’t just affect the countries of the Middle East,” he added.
Mack spoke recently during the 57th annual conference of the Middle East Institute (MEI), a Washington foreign policy think tank.
US casualties in Iraq are increasing
The reality of the region’s newfound impact on life in the US is being driven home hard by the present situation in Iraq, where US troops are sustaining almost daily casualties.
The cost of the occupation, in money and blood, is upsetting too many Americans.
It may also have provided groups like al-Qaida with a perfect battleground for jihad against the United States, according to Peter Bergen, a CNN analyst and author of a best-selling book on global “terrorism”.
“This jihad is so much easier to justify than flying passenger jets into buildings and killing civilians,” Bergen said at the MEI conference.
“Here, an army appears to be occupying, or is occupying, a Muslim country and the legal basis of that occupation is not particularly certain.”
For all of the documented atrocities of the Saddam Hussein government, few experts viewed Iraq as a launch pad for “terrorist” groups. The US military presence there will likely change that, Bergen said.
“It is, I think, also fair to assume that Iraq will become the centre of [al-Qaida’s] operations,” he said.
For better or worse, the US is in control of Iraq’s political and economic future, a fact that could impact the country and the region in ways positive or negative, said Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and current foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, a DC-based think tank.
“I think that what you see is that Iraq could go in almost any direction,” Pollack said. “And what is going to determine what direction Iraq goes is most likely going to be what direction the US takes it.”
In the best-case scenario, Iraq could be transformed into a prosperous democratic model for the Middle East, spurring political reforms across the region and enhancing US standing in the Arab world, he said.
A Palestinian camp in Lebanon: Still
In a worst-case scenario, Iraq could degenerate into a nightmare of religious and ethnic infighting, akin to what befell Lebanon during its long civil war.
The consequences of such an outcome would quickly spill over into other Arab countries and US efforts to promote stability and democracy would be shattered, he said.
“If we get the Lebanon of the 1970s and 80s, it will destabilise the entire Middle East,” Pollack added.
Neo-conservatives of the Bush administration are seeking to initiate a “wave of democratisation” throughout the Middle East, to replace unfriendly governments with pluralistic ones more aligned with US interests in the region.
However, democracy building, as evident by the current problems in Iraq, is often a long, messy and sometimes futile process, especially when imposed on a society through the “barrel of a gun”, former US ambassador Joseph Wilson said at the conference.
Efforts at forming democracies in the Middle East are achievable, but will require many years of patience and dedication, he said.
“Democratisation is not unlike an English garden, an English lawn,” he said. “If you want to make it look good, you have to seed it, you have to water it, you have to roll it every day for 600 years.”
Several Middle Eastern countries are showing signs that more politically open systems of government are possible down the road, speakers at the conference said.
Saudi Arabia recently announced that municipal elections would be held next year, though the monarchy would clearly remain in charge.
Iran, despite fervent efforts by its ruling clergy to preserve the Islamic government, is developing a more democratic civil society, one expert on the country said.
“The Arabs are hearing the music of freedom and democracy, but they sure don’t want any dances with Wolfowitz”
Overall, various cultural changes that might precede democratic reforms are taking place throughout the Middle East, said Muhammad Wahby, the Washington bureau chief for al-Mussawar, an Egyptian magazine.
“Everywhere in the Arab world now, almost everywhere, there is an expanding area of freedom of expression,” Wahby said.
While he stressed that American-style democracy was only one version of democracy and was unlikely to take hold in the Middle East anytime soon, Wahby said the signs of more politically tolerant Arab societies were encouraging.
Not everyone at the conference agreed.
Frank Gaffney, Jr, president of the Centre for Security Policy and a former assistant secretary of defence in the Reagan administration, said the Middle East was plagued by governments more interested in provoking countries like the US than spearheading democratic changes at home.
“I believe the truth that authoritarian, and for that matter totalitarian regimes, have a compelling need for external enemies,” Gaffney said, denouncing many Arab governments as inherently violent “Islamo-fascist”.
But the Arab people are ready to embrace democratic reforms, they just do not want them rammed down their throats by the US, said Husayn Shubukshi, a columnist for The Arab News, a leading Middle East English newspaper.
“The Arabs are hearing the music of freedom and democracy, but they sure don’t want any dances with Wolfowitz,” Shubukshi said.