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An alliance of tyrants

August 3, 2007 | Page 2

SCRAMBLING TO overcome the impact of the U.S. debacle in Iraq, George W. Bush is moving to prop up assorted dictators and monarchs across the Middle East and South Asia with money, guns and fulsome political support.

So much for Bush's rhetoric about "transforming" the Middle East through promoting "democracy." From bribes and threats against the Musharraf military regime in Pakistan to multibillion-dollar arms deals for Israel and conservative Arab states, the White House is attempting to shore up U.S. dominance in the Persian Gulf as the Iraq catastrophe drags on.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates began a joint trip to the Middle East just as Bush announced a major arms package for the region. Israel will get $30 billion over the next decade--an increase of one-quarter over the Clinton administration's 1998 aid package.

Another $13 billion will go to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and small Gulf states. Saudi Arabia will, for the first time, be given access to more advanced missiles and naval equipment.

The not-so-secret goal of this military largess is the development of an alliance against Iran. As Rice put it at the outset of her trip, "There isn't a doubt, I think, that Iran constitutes the single most important, single-country challenge to...U.S. interests in the Middle East and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see."

If Iran is on the rise, it's thanks in large part to Bush's failures. "The United States made possible an emergent Iran by eliminating its Taliban rivals to the east [in Afghanistan] and its Baathist rivals to the west [in Iraq] and then installing a Shia government in Baghdad for the first time in history," wrote Iran expert and former National Security Council staff member Gary Sick.

"Having inadvertently created a set of circumstances that insured an increase in Iranian strength and bargaining power that seriously frightened U.S. erstwhile Sunni allies in the region and that undermined U.S. strength and credibility, the U.S. now proposes a new and improved regional political relationship to deal with the problem, and, incidentally, to distract attention from America's plight in Iraq while reviving America's position as the ultimate power in the region."

Despite the debate on Iraq in Washington, the Democratic Congress shares Bush's goal of maintaining the U.S. as "ultimate power" in the Middle East. The only opposition to Bush's plans will come from a handful of pro-Israel members of the House who are opposed to building up Saudi Arabia's military capacity.

Nor is there any Democratic challenge to the U.S. effort to build up the government of Lebanon economically and militarily as a counterweight to Hezbollah. There's also bipartisan support for Washington's effort to back the Palestinian Fatah faction in the West Bank as a rival to the elected Hamas government.

"But there is a potentially huge flaw in this brilliant policy legerdemain," Sick observes. "Iraq will just not go away, and the government of Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia partisan, is proving to be an intractable obstacle to sweeping the Iraqi debacle under the rug."

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A DISCUSSION is underway as well over the U.S. government's other war--in Afghanistan, where the NATO occupation is under pressure from a resurgent Taliban.

The recently published U.S. National Intelligence Estimate claims that al-Qaeda has "protected or regenerated key elements of its [U.S.] homeland attack capability, including: a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas, operational lieutenants, and its top leadership."

Bush used a weekly national radio address in July to criticize Pakistan for failing to crack down on the tribal areas. He did, however, praise Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf--still seen in White House as a linchpin of U.S. strategy in the region.

Yet that didn't placate key Democrats who want to posture as being tougher than Bush in the "war on terror." They claim the invasion of Iraq was a diversion from the "real" war on terror--in Afghanistan. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) asked of Pakistani tribal areas: "Is this a Motel 6 for terrorists?"

U.S. military officials have said that they will consider "hot pursuit" of Taliban and al-Qaeda elements into Pakistan. In fact, a CIA drone already attacked inside Pakistan in January 2006, killing 18 people, many women and children, in a failed effort to assassinate al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri. Those indiscriminate killings by the U.S. only deepened Musharraf's unpopularity in Pakistan.

Despite the frustrations of Washington policymakers, the U.S. doesn't have much of an alternative other than to shore up Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999 and remains the country's top general.

Washington recently sent Pakistan two new F-16 fighter jets, with 24 more set to follow. Bush also blessed the Pakistani military's bloody onslaught last month against Islamist students who occupied the historic Red Mosque in the capital city of Islamabad.

Since then, fighting has heated up in Pakistan's western borderlands, where pro-Taliban elements have targeted Pakistan's military. And back in Islamabad, the attempt to reopen the mosque July 27 ended in more bloodshed when a suicide bomber killed 13 people as police attacked students who briefly reoccupied the mosque. This violence is the inevitable result of the U.S. attempts to use the Pakistani state as its instrument of policy.

The latest effort to bolster U.S. influence in Pakistan--and through it, Central and South Asia--is the attempt to broker a deal between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, the exiled former prime minister and head of the nominally populist Pakistani Peoples Party. By allowing Bhutto to return to Pakistan and supporting her bid to become prime minister, Musharraf could remain as president, army chief or both.

This could give his regime some democratic window-dressing and block the alliance of Islamist parties that might otherwise contend for a parliamentary majority in upcoming elections. But it certainly won't end the tendency of the Afghanistan war to spill into Pakistan, where it threatens the integrity of the Pakistani state itself.

Bush's effort to shore up U.S. clients and dictators in the Middle East and Asia constitute the "Plan B" of U.S. imperialism. While debate in Washington will continue over the Iraq occupation, a consensus is already emerging on the need to build a firewall against a further loss of U.S. imperial power. The antiwar movement will need to develop a perspective that can meet this challenge.

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