MIDDLE EAST: Happy New Year, Colin Powell
William Fisher «View Bio

Second-guessing is always easy and should be avoided whenever possible. This is particularly true in the dynamic and ambiguous world of geopolitics. But sometimes one cannot resist. The year-end message of US Secretary of State Colin Powell in The New York Times made this one of those times.

The principal reason is that Powell`s message was unabashedly self-congratulatory. The year just ended was wrapped in red ribbon, bright and attractive. There were no missteps, no errors, no mistakes, no misguided priorities, no missed opportunities.

The Bush administration, he wrote, can review the past and plan the future "with confidence, because US President George W. Bush`s vision is clear and right: America"s formidable power must continue to be deployed on behalf of principles that are simultaneously American, but that are also beyond and greater than ourselves."

A substantial part of Powell`s message predictably focused on Iraq and Afghanistan. "The Afghan people," he wrote, "...now have a constitution, a rapidly advancing market economy, and new hope as they look toward national elections."

The facts on the ground remain a lot messier. While the Afghan Loya Jirga (great council) finally approved the new constitution, Amnesty International reported that intimidation and fear of retribution prevented some delegates from participating freely.

"Dominance by strong political and armed factional leaders, and the absence of the rule of law in many parts of the country, contribute to an atmosphere of insecurity for delegates who wish to act independently of powerful political groups. Some delegates fear for the safety of their families and for their own lives, especially after they return home at the end [of the meeting]" Amnesty said.

The country"s "rapidly advancing market economy," cited by Powell, is in fact being led by poppy production. The Karzai government controls virtually nothing outside Kabul, the warlords have become uneasy allies, the US has failed to provide anything approaching the magnitude of funding originally promised, and there is much evidence of the resurgence of the Taliban. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, in the wake of 9/11, the US invaded this country, overthrew the Taliban government, and then effectively wandered off to invade Iraq.

On Iraq, Powell wrote, "The aspirations of a free and talented Iraqi nation are also taking wing, now that Saddam Hussein"s murderous regime is no more.... We are working to return sovereignty to the Iraqi people through a fair and open process and to ensure that the country receives the maximum feasible debt relief. As the Coalition Provisional Authority closes its doors on June 30... we will open an embassy in Baghdad."

We are all happy that Saddam Hussein was captured. But Democratic candidate Howard Dean was right: the US is no safer today than it was before his capture. Insurgency did not collapse. There may be fewer attacks on coalition forces, but US military spokesmen have noted that they are becoming more sophisticated and more coordinated.

There is no doubt that the Bush administration desperately wants to be out of Iraq before the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. To this end, the coalition has adopted an almost certainly unachievable timetable for returning sovereignty to the Iraqis. But what kind of government will they leave behind, and who will elect/appoint it? Then there is the issue of reconstruction. Who will rebuild this shattered country? The same people who were given the "no-play, no-pay" dictum by the US defense department and the same week asked to forgive Iraqi debt? Not likely.

Powell"s message also addressed the greater Middle East. He wrote: "While our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq will continue in 2004, we are resolved as well to turn the president"s goal of a free and democratic Middle East into a reality. We will expand the Middle East Partnership Initiative to encourage political, economic, and educational reform throughout the region...."

Achieving Bush"s Wilsonian vision of a democratic Middle East is easy only for speech writers. The closest American allies in the "war on terror" are the very countries Bush would democratize, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example. These are the same authoritarian regimes to which the US continues to cozy up, into which it has poured billions of dollars in aid, and which have talked reform but done nothing for decades. Yet Powell"s message was silent on just how these conflicting priorities are to be reconciled.

Among the more noteworthy characteristics of the message was the number of times Powell used the pronoun "we," and the near total absence of references to the United Nations or the international community. Buried near the bottom of his message after Iran, Latin America, North Korea, and many other problem regions - he asserted: "with our quartet partners - the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia - we will help Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace, so that a free Palestine will exist alongside a secure and democratic Jewish state in Israel."

The very positioning of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the message spoke volumes about the Bush administration"s strategic miscalculations. If the US truly aspires to win the "hearts-and-minds" battle of the Arab street, the effort needs to begin in Jerusalem, not in Baghdad, Kabul, or Tehran. This means dispensing a lot of tough love to both Israelis and Palestinians, consistently and patiently, over an extended period of time, as only the US has the resources and the credibility to do.

Sadly, however, the pragmatism of US politics suggests that anything that takes a long time and a lot of patience is very unlikely to happen in an election year.

William Fisher is a former manager of economic development programs for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development in the Middle East.