Coming to terms with the Middle East of today

Taken together press accounts from the Middle East and new stories here at home all remind us that no matter happens with our troop levels in Iraq, the troubles of today's Middle East and the Muslim world are among the most urgent foreign policies challenges facing the nation, and are likely to be with us for a very long time.   As the Iraq Study Group implored, America needs to fashion a diplomatic, economic and military for the region, not just Iraq.  It needs to be a long-term, patient strategy, and it is going to cost our nation and the rest of the modern world a lot of money.  

I think it is time that the Democrats, who have done so much to force a much needed dose of realism into the Iraq debate, start doing the same for the region and the rest of Muslim world - for we should have little doubt that for all the money we've spent, the lives lost, the injuries sustained and prestige damaged, this region of the world is much more dangerous and unstable today than prior to 9/11.  Our failure in Iraq has been an epic one, as it has unleashed forces we little understand and certainly cannot control. 

Consider this passage from a front page New York Times piece from Monday:

The Iraq war, which for years has drawn militants from around the world, is beginning to export fighters and the tactics they have honed in the insurgency to neighboring countries and beyond, according to American, European and Middle Eastern government officials and interviews with militant leaders in Lebanon, Jordan and London.

Some of the fighters appear to be leaving as part of the waves of Iraqi refugees crossing borders that government officials acknowledge they struggle to control. But others are dispatched from Iraq for specific missions. In the Jordanian airport plot, the authorities said they believed that the bomb maker flew from Baghdad to prepare the explosives for Mr. Darsi.

Estimating the number of fighters leaving Iraq is at least as difficult as it has been to count foreign militants joining the insurgency. But early signs of an exodus are clear, and officials in the United States and the Middle East say the potential for veterans of the insurgency to spread far beyond Iraq is significant.

Maj. Gen. Achraf Rifi, general director of the Internal Security Forces in Lebanon, said in a recent interview that “if any country says it is safe from this, they are putting their heads in the sand.”

Last week, the Lebanese Army found itself in a furious battle against a militant group, Fatah al Islam, whose ranks included as many as 50 veterans of the war in Iraq, according to General Rifi. More than 30 Lebanese soldiers were killed fighting the group at a refugee camp near Tripoli.

The army called for outside support. By Friday, the first of eight planeloads of military supplies had arrived from the United States, which called Fatah al Islam “a brutal group of violent extremists.”

The group’s leader, Shakir al-Abssi, was an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia who was killed last summer. In an interview with The New York Times earlier this month, Mr. Abssi confirmed reports that Syrian government forces had killed his son-in-law as he tried crossing into Iraq to collaborate with insurgents.

A Danger to the Region

Militant leaders warn that the situation in Lebanon is indicative of the spread of fighters. “You have 50 fighters from Iraq in Lebanon now, but with good caution I can say there are a hundred times that many, 5,000 or higher, who are just waiting for the right moment to act,” Dr. Mohammad al-Massari, a Saudi dissident in Britain who runs the jihadist Internet forum,, said in an interview on Friday. “The flow of fighters is already going back and forth, and the fight will be everywhere until the United States is willing to cease and desist.”

Or this passage, from another Memorial Day front page story:

BAGHDAD — Staff Sgt. David Safstrom does not regret his previous tours in Iraq, not even a difficult second stint when two comrades were killed while trying to capture insurgents.

“In Mosul, in 2003, it felt like we were making the city a better place,” he said. “There was no sectarian violence, Saddam was gone, we were tracking down the bad guys. It felt awesome.”

But now on his third deployment in Iraq, he is no longer a believer in the mission. The pivotal moment came, he says, this February when soldiers killed a man setting a roadside bomb. When they searched the bomber’s body, they found identification showing him to be a sergeant in the Iraqi Army.

“I thought: ‘What are we doing here? Why are we still here?’ ” said Sergeant Safstrom, a member of Delta Company of the First Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. “We’re helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us.”

Or this story from a few days earlier about new findings from the newly liberated Senate Intelligence Committee:

Most of the information in the report was drawn from two lengthy assessments issued by the National Intelligence Council in January 2003, titled "Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq" and "Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq," both of which the Senate report reprints with only minor redactions. The assessments were requested by Richard N. Haass, then director of policy planning at the State Department, and were written by Paul R. Pillar, the national intelligence officer for the Near East, as a synthesis of views across the 16-agency intelligence community.

The report includes lists indicating that the analyses, which were reported by The Washington Post last week, were distributed at senior levels of the White House and the State and Defense departments and to the congressional armed services and appropriations committees. At the time, the White House and the Pentagon were saying that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators, democracy would be quickly established and Iraq would become a model for the Middle East. Initial post-invasion plans called for U.S. troop withdrawals to begin in summer 2003.

The classified reports, however, predicted that establishing a stable democratic government would be a long challenge because Iraq's political culture did "not foster liberalism or democracy" and there was "no concept of loyal opposition and no history of alternation of power."

They also said that competing Sunni, Shiite and Kurd factions would "encourage terrorist groups to take advantage of a volatile security environment to launch attacks within Iraq." Because of the divided Iraqi society, there was "a significant chance that domestic groups would engage in violent conflict with each other unless an occupying force prevented them from doing so."

While predicting that terrorist threats heightened by the invasion would probably decline within five years, the assessments said that lines between al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups around the world "could become blurred." U.S. occupation of Iraq "probably would boost proponents of political Islam" throughout the Muslim world and "funds for terrorist groups probably would increase as a result of Muslim outrage over U.S. actions."

So, here we are.  Iran has become a regional hegemon and made great strides towards nuclearization.  Lebanon's government is no longer in control of its own country.  Iraq is a failing state that is exporting its chaos throughout the region.  Scared by the Shia revival so eloquently described by Vali Nasr, Sunni Arab states are now treating Al Qaeda as a legitimate ally in its fight against the Shiites.  After all these years Bin Laden is still on the loose.  Our great ally, Pakistan, also now fearful of Iran, is helping revive the Taliban.   Two groups America considers terrorist organizations, Hezbollah and Hamas, were elected to power in the region in elections our government sanctioned.  Israel, one of our nation's most important allies in the world, has been weakened by a war that I believe they fought because of their perception that America has become an ineffective actor in the region. 

So, what exactly has gone right over there these past 7 years? Perhaps a trillon dollars spent, a terrible degradation of our military, tens of thousands of casualities, a dangerous lost of our prestige and ability to project power and a Middle East more unstable than before.  What in our history can compare to this extraordinary set of miscalculations and mistakes?  But more importantly, what do we do now?

As essential as setting deadlines for a troop withdrawal may be, it is time for Democrats to begin confronting this broader reality, and start the process of fashioning a much deeper and long term strategy for what has become the most important and troubled region in the world today.