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A War Without Winners

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By Richard Cohen
Thursday, November 3, 2005

AMMAN, Jordan -- In some respects, Jordan is not having a bad war. Emigre Iraqis are buying real estate here, the high-tech sector is booming, the port of Aqaba is busier than ever, contractors of all sorts stay in the hotels, and a lot of what the military needs in Iraq comes through Jordan. This country is one big supply base.

In some other respects, the war is not going well at all. The neighborhood -- one of the worst in the world for a small country -- has gotten considerably less stable since the war began. It is true, of course, that Saddam Hussein, the mad bully of the region, is locked up -- and that is not an inconsiderable achievement. Although it is often overlooked, ridding this area and the world of a dictator who started two wars and savaged his own people has to be cause for a certain amount of cheer.

But from there, things go rapidly downhill. A Jordanian looking around the region would see some ominous developments in neighboring countries. The most important is the extension of Iranian influence, if not outright control, into southern Iraq, where Shiites are predominant and oil is found in abundance. The north of Iraq is already a functional Kurdish republic. It, too, has oil. That leaves the Sunni middle around Baghdad. It has no oil but will be rich in aggrieved people -- a vast recruiting ground for al Qaeda. It is not the sort of neighbor Jordan would want.

To the south is Saudi Arabia, where al Qaeda's influence may be growing and where some recent terrorist attacks seemed to have been inside jobs -- someone in the military or the police was in on it. Whatever the case, the Saudis, too, have a Shiite minority, and their country is in the oil-rich northeast, right next to Iraq and Iran. The Saudis are not happy with how the war in Iraq has made their lives even more difficult. It is impossible for Jordan, a country with a population of a mere 6 million, not to worry about the potential instability of a neighbor. It is also impossible for an oil-dependent America not to worry about Saudi Arabia.

Now we come to Syria, another of Jordan's problematic neighbors. The dictator there, Bashar Assad, is under great pressure to produce the killer or killers of Rafiq Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister. Trouble is, some of the culprits might be in Assad's own family -- if not the president himself. Since he is not likely to arrest his brother or his brother-in-law (not to mention himself), it's hard to see what the outcome to this mess may be: perhaps sanctions imposed by the United Nations. However nice it would be for Assad to be among the unemployed, Washington's primary concern is not strictly law and order but the willingness of Assad to allow terrorists to cross into Iraq from his country -- another repercussion of the war and Syria's fear that it might be next.

The United States would love for the Assad regime to go. But what would replace it? It's hard to imagine, but it could be something worse: the radical Muslim Brotherhood, for instance. It is about the closest thing Assad and his clique have to an organized opposition. Replacing a secular dictatorship with a radically religious one is not what Washington would call progress.

In short, and not taking into account the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, the war in Iraq has hardly made this area more stable. It's true, of course, that nothing catastrophic has yet occurred in the region, but the casual assurance that nothing will happen must now be held to a new post-Iraq standard: Just about everything Washington said was happening (weapons of mass destruction) and would happen (an easy occupation) has turned out to be utterly false.

One could almost forgive President Bush for waging war under false or mistaken pretenses had a better, more democratic Middle East come out of it. But just as the 1991 Persian Gulf War introduced an element of instability in the region -- the rise of al Qaeda in response to the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia -- so might this one do something similar. A Shiite arc is forming, Iraq is infested with terrorists and coming apart, Syria might be going from bad to worse, and Saudi Arabia is complaining loudly that the war's only winners are the Shiites and Iran. From here, it looks like a war that is already going badly for America could go even worse for much of the Middle East.

Mission accomplished?

cohenr@washpost.com


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