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Experts question Bush's vision of democracy in Middle East

WASHINGTON—While President Bush argues that toppling Saddam Hussein would send a wave of democracy through the Arab world and help end the Arab-Israeli conflict, experts and some administration officials say the opposite is at least as likely.

A U.S.-led attack on Iraq, they said, could ignite new anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world; provoke new challenges to moderate Arab regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere; fuel support for Palestinian terrorist groups and inspire secular hard-liners and Islamic revolutionaries to counterattack.

In fact, some experts said, any hopes for negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians would fade if U.S. attention to the Mideast falters once Saddam is gone.

Finally, even if monarchies, dictatorships and sheikdoms in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region move toward democratic rule, Arab voters may not elect governments that are grateful to Washington, the experts and officials said.

"It may give us regimes that, frankly, are less friendly to the United States," said Doug Bandow, a foreign policy expert with the Cato Institute, a policy center in Washington founded on libertarian principles. "This is an area where we mouth a lot of platitudes and cross our fingers."

In a major policy speech Wednesday night, Bush said Saddam's removal would serve as a "dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations of the region." He said a democratic Iraq would give impetus to Middle East peace talks leading to "a truly democratic Palestinian state."

Any U.S.-led military action against Iraq is likely to bring rapid-fire images of Iraqis elated at the lifting of Saddam's police state, a variety of experts said, but changes elsewhere are likely to come slowly.

"It will occur very, very gradually, over a number of years," said Amatzia Baram, a historian and Iraq expert at the University of Haifa in Israel.

Some hawkish conservatives inside and outside the Bush administration, led by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, argue the opposite, suggesting that Saddam's removal and the creation of a pluralistic Iraqi democracy will create tectonic upheaval in the region.

"We want everyone else in the Middle East to say, `Hey, why can't we have what the Iraqis have?'" said Danielle Pletka, the vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative center where Bush spoke Wednesday.

"This is a mission to reshape and make better the lives of 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa," she said.

"This is an opportunity to shake up the feudalistic, fascistic, tyrannical regimes that are in place," said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia research center.

But other scholars, former diplomats and some administration officials offered harsh, even scathing, criticism of Bush's speech. Some said it was short on specifics, unrealistic in its assumptions and oriented to bolster domestic and foreign support for the U.S. campaign on Iraq rather than to lay out a blueprint of American plans for the region.

"This is the triumph of the neo-conservatives," said one administration foreign affairs expert, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "I pray they're right, but I fear they're wrong."

The speech "will almost certainly be seen as a major failure in public diplomacy," Anthony H. Cordesman, a conservative national-security expert, wrote in a critique. He added that it "was horribly light on the kind of details and substance that might have reassured the Arab world and defused the dominating flood of conspiracy theories in the region."

After Saddam's fall, nearby hard-line regimes would be likely to tighten the screws.

"Any change that brings Iraq back as a player will be frightening to some of its neighbors," said Judith Kipper, the director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonprofit group that promotes foreign policy debate.

Conservative mullahs and clerics in neighboring Iran already face huge pressures from youths weary of strict Islamic rule. Moreover, finding themselves sandwiched between a pro-U.S. regime in Afghanistan and American troops in Iraq, clerics may crack down harder on reformers, some experts said.

But since 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people are Shiites, the same brand of Islam as the majority in Iran, the Iraqi experience will certainly pollinate views in Iran.

"There will be a lot of contact. People will go back to Tehran and say what's going on," said Baram. "Iran is the next candidate for democratization."

In contrast, Syria, ruled by Bashar Assad, probably will grow more isolated and conservative, and Jordan will approach democratic reforms "at its own pace," Baram said.

In Saudi Arabia, a major U.S. oil supplier, the Saud family that has ruled since 1932 appears to be gambling that it can forestall growing economic and demographic pressures, withstand a trend toward democracy and remain in the good graces of Washington as a reliable oil supplier.

"They've taken a pretty sophisticated look at the market and decided the world is going to need all the oil it can get," said Richard W. Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Murphy said U.S. efforts at promoting democracy would require a sustained effort.

"It's going to take a long time and a lot of hard work," he said. "There are deep suspicions in the region that this is the starkest kind of new colonialism. There's apprehension about the neo-conservative line—first Baghdad, then on to Tehran, then on to Damascus."

Kipper said she thought U.S. attention would drift if Saddam were removed.

"It's going to take quite some time to mop up in Iraq, and then we're going to be in an election year," she said. "It's unimaginable to me that during the last year of a first term, the president will have the kind of commitment needed to engage (on the Arab-Israeli conflict)."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.