In the United States we dismiss those who tell us that our actions will have consequences. Most did not believe predictions of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, concerns about the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, possible strikes against the United States or the unfolding disaster in postwar Iraq. Politicians tend to view such predictions as pure speculation. But when things go wrong, the same politicians wonder why no one saw it coming.
In 1988, I had the pleasure of teaching General Norman Schwarzkopf in a class at the Foreign Service Institute. In mid-1985, I had a premonition that Kuwait would be swallowed up by Iran or Iraq after those two countries ended their war. In October 1988, when Norman Schwarzkopf heard me speak of this, he remarked that I had a wild imagination! Early 1991, when Rear Admiral David Rogers (the incoming naval commander for CENTCOM) was a member of my class, I could not resist asking him to tell General Schwarzkopf that while I had a wild imagination, he apparently had none, a message the Admiral declined to pass on, given the General's renowned temper. Our looming problems with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan were obvious to many well before 9/11. A few observers had speculated about the possibility of using airplanes as missiles. Well before the invasion of Iraq, many observers predicted most, if not all, of the major setbacks that we have witnessed so far in that war effort.
All of the above is old news. What about the future of the Middle East? Let me say it bluntly: unless the United States does a 180-degree turn, we could be in for a series of events that will make the invasion of Kuwait, the tragedy of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq look like a walk in the park. Let me first "wildly imagine" what may well happen if we continue on the road we are taking and then bluntly state how we might avoid such a devastating outcome.
The battles in Najaf and Karbala could at any moment result in the destruction of Shiite holy sites, an important Shiite leader could be killed or a large number of civilians could die. Any of these events will inflame the Shiites against us. If that happens, we will be attacked from more sides. As more Americans die, we will become more heavy-handed. More Iraqis will die. Because of any of these possible developments and because of pent-up frustrations against the American role in the Middle East at large, there will be a general uprising against the ruling regimes in a number of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Jordan, to force them to break all ties with the U.S. Some of these regimes may in fact be toppled, making it easier for insurgents to come into Iraq. Individual Iranians could possibly cross the border and join the fight. There will be a popular demand for an oil embargo in all Arab countries. The Arab oil exporters will be joined by Iran to cut back total exports of oil by 50 percent or more until all U.S. military presence is removed from the entire Middle East and North Africa and a viable Palestinian state is created.
The world economy will go into a depression the likes of which have not been seen for three generations. The US will be forced to leave the region. The Middle East will become so radicalized that current conditions will, in retrospect, seem to have been the "days of wine and roses." More demands will be made on Israel than what Arabs would be willing to accept today. Israel will use nuclear weapons to hit targets in Iran and in Arab countries. Pakistan will join in the war and a regional war to end all wars will ensue, with oil exports from the region coming to a trickle and the world economy going into a depression that will surpass anything seen during the Great Depression.
Now there you have a wild tale from someone with a wild imagination! But if there is even a 1 percent probability that even 25 percent of these wild predictions could come to pass, then we have a moral duty to do all that we can to prevent this from happening.
So why are things so bad and what can be done?
It is time for bluntness. Let's stop sugar-coating of facts. The Muslim world is outraged by the prisoner scandal and no longer believes, likes or trusts the United States. The reasons are long but include: entrenched support of corrupt Middle Eastern dictators who have suppressed their own people, increasingly open support of Israel, the baseless invasion of Iraq associated with civilian deaths and abuse of prisoners, perceived disdain and arrogance toward the Muslim world and official statements of half-truths (that the war was to bring democracy to Iraq while we installed a puppet Governing Council, that the abuse of prisoners is isolated and limited even after we were warned by the ICRC of widespread abuses in Iraq and in Afghanistan, that we support a viable state for the Palestinians while we endorse assassinations by Sharon, and so on). This is the perception and the reality for most Muslims in the Middle East. Instead of accepting these realties, acknowledging past mistakes with humility and adopting a completely new approach so as to avoid a looming disaster, the US takes half-measures and makes matters even worse: the President apologizes belatedly for the abuse of prisoners, he continues to insist that the abuse was isolated and carried out by half a dozen or so renegade soldiers, he refuses to demand the resignation of any senior military or intelligence officials - something that would show the Muslim world how seriously we take this whole affair - and he persists in talk of affording an increasing but still incomplete authority to the UN.
How can we avoid the potential catastrophe outlined above?
The President should make a speech apologizing for all (with a list) past mistakes made in the Middle East; he should promise not to support dictators in the region, not to interfere in the internal affairs of any country in the region and he should express a commitment to immediately bring about a viable Palestinian State with multilateral support for the security of Israel. The US should enlist a UN peacekeeping force (initially dominated by US troops but with a strict timetable for NATO allies and others to assume over 50 percent of the military responsibility) under UN or possibly NATO control. He should commit to a regional plan to be developed by the World Bank and the UNDP for sustained economic development of the region with financial support and trade preferences from the OECD. Yes, this involves swallowing our pride, but look at what we might avoid. Surely it is time to act while we can still imagine and while we have room to maneuver.
Hossein Askari is the Iran Professor of International Business and Professor of International Affairs at the George Washington University.