When, between World War I and the early 1950s, the British were the
dominant power in the Middle East, they used the twin pillars of Cairo and
Baghdad to control and cajole the region. Both were firmly under Londonâ€™s
thumb until the rise of modern Arab nationalism consigned Britainâ€™s
imperial pretensions in the region to oblivion, first with the Egyptian
revolution of 1952 and then the Iraqi revolution of 1958.
Today it is the US that exercises a domineering influence over so much
of the Middle East â€” but since Sept. 11, that has not been enough for the
Bush administration. It wants to reshape the Middle East to suit its own
interests. It already has a Western pillar in Israel. This war is about
raising a second pillar, an Iraqi pillar, on which to establish American
power in the region.
Officials in Washington are open about it. They talk about this being a
war that starts to make the Middle East â€śsafe for Americaâ€ť. They imagine
that by introducing democracy to Iraq, it will turn it into a Middle
Eastern version of the US, and that from there Western-style democracy
will spread through the region and transform it.
They are blind. The US may see this as a step forward; Arabs see it as
rank imperialism. And so do the Iraqis. Little things like the Iraqi flag
ripped down in places in southern Iraq and replaced with the Stars and
Strips only convince them that once the war is over, they will be even
less free than at present.
Democracy can indeed sometimes be imposed through the barrel of a gun
and take root; Germany and Japan are testimony to that. But in 1945,
Germany and Japan were completely crushed after years of war in which
almost everything was destroyed. Not in anyoneâ€™s worst nightmare is the
Iraqi war going to last four of five years or every one of its cities
reduced to dust. A few weeks of struggle, a couple of months at most, are
not going to significantly change the Iraqisâ€™ perception of things.
They may be thankful afterward that Saddam Husseinâ€™s regime has gone,
but Baghdad is not willingly going to become the second pillar on which to
base a Pax Americana in the region. Nonetheless, the foundations of a
second pillar are being laid not in Iraq, but elsewhere. Yesterdayâ€™s joint
Peshmerga-USAF attack on bases in northern Iraq belonging to Ansar
Al-Islam, which Washington accuses of being linked to Al-Qaeda, heralds a
new, potentially decisive US strategic relationship in the Middle East to
balance the one with the Israelis â€” that with the Kurds.
US special services have been operating with Kurdish forces in their
northern autonomous region for several months and there can be no doubting
the warmth of the reception Kurds gave the 1,000 American troops who
parachuted into the region two days ago to secure the airbase at Harir,
not least because the US presence there effectively prevents the Turks
from moving in.
It is not difficult to envisage Harir being developed into a massive,
permanent US airbase in the region. A future Baghdad government may not
like it, but the decision will not be its; it will be Kurdsâ€™ â€” and they
will want to keep the Americans there as protectors, both from any future
Iraqi government and from Turkey. And for Washington, the Kurds, with
independence in everything but name, and the oil wealth of Kirkuk to boot,
could provide a very useful ally, in addition to the Israelis, to dominate
the Middle East.