Supporters of war in Iraq say one result could be the transformation of the region; that is, a U.S. victory could lead to democracies replacing authoritarian regimes. An area of repression and strife could become peaceful and stable.
"This could be a golden opportunity to begin to change the face of the Arab world," says former CIA director James Woolsey.
He refers to the opportunity that would be presented by a U.S. conquest of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. A democracy established in post-war Iraq could spread its influence to other countries now under repressive rule.
As quoted in the Atlantic magazine, Mr. Woolsey notes that in the wake of U.S. and allied victories in World War Two and the Cold War, the number of democracies vastly expanded. Let's add a few more in the Middle East.
That indeed is the policy of U.S. deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who, according to The New York Times, considers post-war Iraq a launch pad of democracy and a counterweight to Islamist extremism.
All that would be welcome, says William Galston, professor in the school of public affairs at the University of Maryland. But is it realistic? Can a U.S. occupation in Iraq be as effective as the one in Japan after World War Two? "It is by no means clear that the people of Iraq will receive an American occupation force with open arms. It is certainly not clear that Iraq's neighbors would be eager to cooperate with democracy building. Nor is it clear that there are the institutions and traditions to build on to achieve democratic results any time soon," said Mr. Galston.
Whatever the case, says Professor Galton, regime changing in the region would take a very long time. Are Americans prepared to wait it out?
Why should these quite unyielding regimes respond to American demands asks Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. We cannot assume the Middle Eastern dominoes will fall at our command. "The assumption hinges on the belief that the rest of the Arab world will be so impressed and intimidated by this demonstration of American power that they will simply fall into line and accept whatever we dictate. You cannot disprove that is going to happen, but it requires an awful lot of assumptions and requires a belief in our capacity for massive social engineering that I do not think is historically justified," the professor said.
Don't underestimate what can be done, says U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing," he asked at a Pentagon briefing, "if Iraq were similar to Afghanistan - if a bad regime were thrown out, people were liberated, food could come in, borders could be opened, repression could stop? I mean it would be fabulous."
Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, warns not to overestimate the Middle East regimes. "These are basically failed regimes living on borrowed time. Let's give them a timely shove," he said.
He adds that a failed regime does not mean a dispirited people. Liberated from their rulers, they can flourish and prosper. Iraq can set an example. "This is a population that traditionally has been fairly well educated, has not been particularly radical in Islamic terms. There is a huge problem of a civil society that has been partially destroyed over Saddam Hussein's regime. Nevertheless, they have resources both in terms on their people and in terms of the oil obviously that give them a better start than many countries," said Mr. Schmitt.
Mr. Schmitt added that there is already a trend to democracy in the region, as can be seen in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Turkey. He believes a timely U.S. presence can speed up this process.
Among the ardent supporters of regime change in the Middle East are the so-called neo-conservatives, who hold positions of importance in the Bush administration. They are concerned with Israeli as well as U.S. security, and some have written policy papers for both countries.
They may have a problem of priorities, says Harvard's Stephen Walt. “I do not think most of them are particularly shy about the importance they attach to the U-S-Israeli relationship and to Israeli security. And to the extent that powerful Arab countries are a threat to Israel, they would like the United States to do what it can to reduce that threat.” Professor Walt adds that Iraq is considered more of a danger to Israel than to the United States.
Conflicting views in the Bush administration are much exaggerated, says Gary Schmitt. To begin with, neo-conservatives favor the spread of democracy, a basic American value. In that sense, they want to share the wealth with the world's less fortunate nations.
Beyond that, adds Mr. Schmitt, President Bush and other members of his administration have derived their policy from a number of sources. “The president is by no means a neo-conservative, but I think he rightfully came to the conclusion after 9/11 that the only real solution to some of these terrible problems of the nexus between certain kinds of states, technologies and terrorism is by a change of regime. I am glad he did as a neo-conservative, but I do not think it is because he is a neo-conservative,” said Mr. Schmitt.
How does war with Iraq relate to the general war on terrorism? Stephen Walt thinks it interferes and says finite resources are diverted from the main danger to a lesser one. “War on Iraq does not contribute directly to defeating al-Qaida or al-Qaida's allies. Moreover, war on Iraq, whether it goes well or badly, is likely to make it easier not harder for bin Laden to recruit, particularly if that war on Iraq is accompanied by continued American backing for what the Muslim world perceives as Israeli expansion and Israeli oppression of the Palestinians,” said Dr. Walt.
But the region remains the center of terrorism, says Gary Schmitt, both funding and inspiring it. War with Iraq strikes at its heart. “Unfortunately, in much of the Middle East, states are governed by regimes that rest mostly on power and less on the popular will. In a region where power matters, where people take power seriously, if you were to take out Saddam, I think that that sends a very strong message that pursuing a foreign policy based on terrorism is a losing hand.”
That is the merit of the Bush threat of war, says David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq can get into the hands of terrorists. “I also believe it is necessary to prepare to go to war in order for us to achieve disarmament of Iraq in any way whatsoever. I think it would be na?ve to believe that if we had not been preparing for a possible war in Iraq last summer, it would ever have been possible to get the U-N inspectors back into the country.”
Even without going to war, says Mr. Mack, the United States has set the stage for far-reaching change in the Middle East.