Coming to Terms with the Muslim World

For the past ten years, and even before, Washington experts on Iran have been saying that the regime in Teheran will be toppled any day, yet the regime is still in place and is firmly entrenched.

For the past ten years, and even before, Washington experts on Iran have been saying that the regime in Teheran will be toppled any day, yet the regime is still in place and is firmly entrenched. No amount of wishful thinking has changed this fact. All the while, we have missed opportunities to work with Iran and better influence regional events. Putting off rapprochement in the hope of dealing with a friendlier regime has been an exercise in futility. After all this time, even the optimist's optimist would have given up on a regime change anytime soon. But even if the regime does change now, after nearly twenty-five years, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge what we may have lost and to say, "I told you so."

At the same time US administrations have espoused democracy for the Middle East and Muslim countries, they have supported the Al-Sauds in Saudi Arabia, Musharaff in Pakistan, Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq (prior to 1990) and others of the same ilk - first in the name of expediency and now under cover of the war on terrorism. The quest for a quick fix of short-term security concerns has trumped the vision for the long-term. US support for Saddam Hussein during the 1980s, all in the name of political expediency, has been the driving force for Iran to acquire nuclear capabilities. The constant reference to freedom and democracy by President Bush has only served to remind Middle Easterners of the freedom that they don't have because of America's support for dictators for over fifty years. Arabs, as did Iranians before them during the reign of the Shah, have started to place much of the blame for their abysmal political and economic conditions at the doorstep of the United States because of its support for their corrupt, anti-democratic, yet US "friendly" (and malleable), rulers. We in the US have not acknowledged the damage of guilt by association and have learned nothing from our experience in supporting the Shah in Iran. Still, we are surprised that we have lost the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world. More ominously, we don't seem to appreciate the wider ramifications of this fact and of our actions today.

We continue to say one thing and do the opposite. While the President expresses his appreciation for Islam, the Pentagon appoints a person such as General Boykin to a highly sensitive post, which will have him interacting closely with Muslims. The General's words on Islam, however, show neither respect nor appreciation. How long would a person making similar pronouncements on Judaism or Christianity be kept on the job? There has been a serious disconnect between the Administration's words and actions when it comes to support for freedom and democracy in the Middle East and respect for Islam.

After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan came the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was arguably the most despised ruler in the Middle East. He was an atheist who had turned to Allah for cover. But the way in which the US  handled him hurt America in the eyes of Muslims. Yes, Saddam Hussein has been overthrown and captured, ridding the Muslim world and the Middle East of its most brutal dictator, but what about the dictators the US continues to support?

There is no Northern Alliance in Iraq to support the US and to give the US cover against the charge of an uninvited occupation. The Bush doctrine of preemptive intervention and regime change, as played out in Iraq, has destroyed America's image throughout the Muslim world. It was a stretch to believe that Saddam Hussein was an imminent danger to the US and to the West. He was clearly a menace toward his neighbors, but, ironically, the country that had suffered the most at the hands of Saddam, Iran, did not feel sufficiently threatened to endorse the US war effort. Sadly, the occupation of Iraq has not and will not be a success if the US continues to project its conqueror image and continues on its present path. US support for a three member interim presidency (Shiite, Sunni Arab, Sunni Kurd), caucuses as opposed to direct elections for an interim government and expanded federalism for Kurds will be rejected by Shiites, if not today then in the future. The US should resist imposing conditions on Iraq, which will in time be rejected and could be the cause of bloodshed. The US must get regime change right in Iraq the first time around. If the regime turns out to be undemocratic and corrupt, the US will be blamed. In that event, if the US supports another regime change, it will be blamed for interference. The US has very little room for maneuver in the eyes of Muslims.