Changing of a Single Letter

One of Winston Smith's tasks as an employee of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's 1984 was making the appropriate changes to the news reports when " Oceania " changed its current foe.

One of Winston Smith's tasks as an employee of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's 1984 was making the appropriate changes to the news reports when " Oceania " changed its current foe.  The same justifications and charges could be used; all that had to be altered was the name of the power.

In Washington today, we can do one better: we only need to substitute one letter.  Now that the war with Iraq is over, the same litany of charges and aspirations is being marshaled for use against Iran (as well as against Syria ).

Consider William Kristol's editorial in this week's issue of The Weekly Standard, where he writes:

"Iran is the tipping point in the war on proliferation, the war on terror, and the effort to reshape the Middle East . If Iran goes pro-Western and anti-terror, positive changes in Syria and Saudi Arabia will follow much more easily. And the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will greatly improve."

Forgive my ignorance, but I thought that it was Iraq that had been the "tipping point."  It was Iraq 's liberation that was supposed to restart the peace process and start a democratic renaissance for the Middle East.  Now, it seems, Iraq wasn't really the linchpin after all.

Michael Ledeen writes in yesterday's Globe and Mail: "It is impossible to win the war on terrorism so long as the regimes in Syria and Iran remain in power.  So now what?  The short answer is regime change." ( May 7, 2003 )

The short answer isn't enough.  "Regime change" is being promoted as the one-size-fits- all solution.  But its proponents treat this policy as a dogma of faith rather than realistically evaluating it as a means of achieving U.S. goals.  We are at a critical moment in the Middle East.  Incendiary rhetoric from the American side about overthrowing the governments in Tehran and Damascus could backfire, strengthening hardline elements in both states, leading to increased support for terrorism and accelerating programs seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.

No one questions the fact that Iran and Syria provide funds, equipment and sanctuary for terrorist groups that target Israel, and more specifically, Israeli civilians.  This support must end, and the Bush Administration is quite right to use the leverage gained by the victory against Saddam Hussein to apply pressure against both Tehran and Damascus .  Indeed, the administration is to be commended for diminishing the "double standard" which previously drew a sharp distinction between terrorists who target Americans and those who target "others."  It is very true that the Tamil Tigers, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or the Chechen separatists have never once targeted the American homeland or U.S. civilians for attack.  Nevertheless, the Bush Administration has taken concrete steps against these and other organizations for their use of terrorist methods--a stance that has helped to solidify the coalition against terrorism.

But it is prudent to question whether the policy of actively promoting regime change is the best solution for dealing with Iran and Syria.  Obviously, Mr. Kristol does not believe that it is the only way to deal with regimes that sponsor terrorism or seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.  He believes that North Korea , for instance, can be contained--even though its weapons of mass destruction pose an imminent danger to two leading U.S. allies and trading partners (who, incidentally, also hold a growing proportion of the American debt that helps to finance the extension and global application of U.S. military power against international terrorism).  

I disagree.  I think that North Korea is a higher priority at this juncture.  The North Korean nuclear program directly threatens the United States, and any conflagration on the Korean peninsula immediately affects the national interests of three nuclear powers.  The U.S. homeland is directly vulnerable if North Korea continues developing ballistic missiles and producing atomic weapons--especially given the current management.

Moreover, proliferation is a supply-side problem.  Removing North Korea as a source of dangerous technology is more efficient that trying to deal with multiple customers in the Middle East .  With North Korea now reportedly threatening to export nuclear arms, putting Pyongyang on the backburner to focus on Iran and Syria --regional troublemakers--conveys the impression, particularly to America 's partners around the world, that Washington is more interested in carrying water for Israel in the Middle East than in removing threats to the global system.

Iran and Syria are containable at this juncture; we have a number of tools at our disposal that are less destabilizing than regime change to deal with the situation.  The Turkish experience with PKK terrorist leader Abdallah Ocalan demonstrates that Damascus , in particular, is amenable to sustained and focused pressure designed to end noxious behavior--without having to resort to "regime change."

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