2003 has been a crucial year for the Middle East, with war in Iraq and the continuing intifada in Israel. The Guardian's acclaimed commentator on the region assesses what happened, what it means, and where it might lead next year.
December 23, 2003
By David Hirst
This was the year the Middle East became the undisputed, tumultuous centre of global politics. When, at dawn on March 20 the US and its British ally went to war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, they were intervening in the region on such a scale that Arabs everywhere compared the invasion, in its potential geopolitical significance, to that seminal upheaval of the last century: the collapse of the Ottoman empire. That led to the arbitrary carve-up of its former Arab provinces by the European colonial powers and, in 1948, to the loss of one of them, Palestine, to the Israeli settler-state.
In Arab eyes, it was a final mortal blow to the so-called "Arab system" through which the component parts of the greater Arab "nation" collectively strove to protect the territorial integrity and basic security of the whole. To the disgust and shame of the Arab peoples, it was not merely incapable of preventing the conquest and occupation of what, properly governed, would have been one of the most powerful and prosperous Arab lands, it was largely complicit in it.
It simply stood and watched as the world's only superpower embarked on its hugely ambitious, neo-colonial enterprise: to make Iraq the fulcrum for reshaping the entire region and, with regime change and "democratisation", cure it of those sicknesses - political and social oppression, religious extremism, corruption, tribalism and economic stagnation - that had turned it into the main threat to the existing world order. It did not formally envisage a full-scale redrawing of state frontiers, but it looked as though by an inexorable momentum that might come to pass.
It was seen as a second Palestine, not so much because it was a foreign conquest of another Arab country, but because, via the Bush administration's neo-conservative hawks, it was at least as much Israeli in inspiration and purpose as it was American. The mighty blow struck in Baghdad would so weaken other Arab regimes that the Palestinians, more than ever bereft of Arab support, would submit to that full-scale Israeli subjugation and dispossession of all but a last pitiful fragment of their original homeland.
This grandiose enterprise began well enough. The rottenest regime of a rotten Arab order collapsed swiftly as expected. Within three weeks the Americans were in Baghdad and an American tank teamed up with a jubilant crowd in the symbolic act of toppling Saddam's statue in Firdaous Square. On May 1 a triumphant, flight-suited George Bush strutted aboard an aircraft carrier to declare major combat operations at an end.
But America was to find no weapons of mass destruction, demolishing the prime official war aim. More seriously, the goodwill it had earned from most Iraqis for overthrowing the despot soon began to dissipate amid the evidence of just how ill-equipped the US was for the "nation-building" that was to follow. There developed a competition, fateful for the success or failure of the whole enterprise, between a majority of Iraqis, who for all their growing exasperation with the occupation wanted it to remain until a healthy, independent Iraqi order could take its place, and a minority who wanted to end it by any means.
By June the first American soldiers began to die. The resistance begun by Saddam loyalists widened to other groups, overwhelmingly Sunni, until by October the CIA concluded that 50,000 people were active in it. The US military responded with drastic methods - collective punishments, massive firepower, demolitions and razings - that could not but incite a greater militancy.
In the wider Arab world, a virulent anti-Americanism was not offset, as it was for the Iraqis, by a hatred of Saddam and the fear of his possible return. So it warmed to the Iraqi resistance more than most Iraqis did - and spawned militants of its own who were drawn to this new arena from which to conduct their jihad against the enemy of Islam and Arabism.
As they struck at almost any target, Iraqi, American or foreign, military, civilian or philanthropic, the itinerant suicide bombers also exploded another pretext for the war: that Saddam had been a partner with Osama bin Laden, and that overthrowing him would deal a critical blow to international terror.
"By pretending that Iraq was crawling with al-Qaida," the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it, "Bush officials created an Iraq crawling with al-Qaida." And not just Iraq: since the invasion the terrorists have struck in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkey, mostly at the expense of other Muslims.
Nor was there any sign of the beneficent effect which such radical intervention in one great zone of Middle East crisis was supposed to have on the other one. The long-established linkage between Iraq and Palestine reasserted itself but with the new occupation interacting with the old one in ways that further complicated the whole neo-imperial grand design.
Ariel Sharon staged Israel's first air raid on Syria in 30 years. Ostensibly it was retaliation for a particularly atrocious Palestinian bombing, but it was also a blatant bid to cast Israel as an operational ally of the US in the "reshaping" of the region and the punishing of that other Ba'athist dictatorship which, in the neo-conservative scheme of things, was next in line for the Saddam treatment.
Then it was revealed that in Iraq US forces were adopting counter-insurgency techniques the Israelis had taught them. This could only deepen the Arab and Muslim conviction that what the American soldiers were now doing to Iraqis was what the Israelis had been doing to Palestinians for the past 50 years. Resistance in one place could only inspire and reinforce it in the other.
In this unfavourable climate Mr Bush sought to launch the long-stalled "road map" for peace, but only at the price of casting the noblest of his official war aims - "democracy for Arabia" - in a very curious Israeli-tinted light. To try to supplant Yasser Arafat with the Palestinians'new prime minister, the hapless Abu Mazen, was actually to subvert democracy in one of the few Arab societies whose leader was, more or less, its authentic electorally proven choice. This short-lived fiasco foundered on Mr Arafat's obduracy, Mr Sharon's intransigence, renewed suicide bombings by Hamas and the partisanship of the most pro-Israeli US president ever, who was not going to risk the wrath of his Jewish and rightwing Christian constituencies in the run-up to next year's presidential election.
Likewise, on the Iraqi front, becoming as it was the greatest potential threat to Mr Bush's prospects of a second term, exalted foreign purpose fell suddenly and flagrantly prey to the expediencies of domestic politics. The capture of Saddam was indeed a timely public relations triumph. But it seemed as likely to broaden the anti-American insurgency as to diminish it, and thereby amplify the growing murmur that here was a new Vietnam in the making.
In the closing weeks of 2003 Mr Bush and his lieutenants kept swearing that America would stay the course "till the job is done", even as they began casting about for plausible exit strategy. With the dexterity that has marked the whole ideologically driven Iraqi enterprise from the outset, they suddenly decided they would end the occupation and transfer authority to an Iraqi government by next summer, reversing the order of events they had formerly envisaged - giving real power to the Iraqis only when they were truly ready for it.
This new Iraqi order would be sovereign and democratic, but the first thing it would do would be to ask American troops to stay on to preserve that sovereignty and democracy.
With this subterfuge, Mr Bush might just, as he apparently plans, manage to declare "mission accomplished" on the eve of the presidential election. But it would be remarkable if such an essentially US-installed government, presiding over a hastily reconstructed army and police, was able for long to master the maelstrom of colliding passions and political interests which the removal of the tyranny has unleashed.
An Iraq at loggerheads with itself, and a paradise for international terrorists, would spare none of the principal actors in this geopolitical drama. Not the US, confronted as it then would be with the classical colonial dilemma of whether to pull back or plunge yet further in. Not the Arab world, whose regimes in their people's eyes only differ from Saddam's in the degree of their degeneracy, nor Israel.
The danger is what Arab commentators habitually call "Lebanonisation" - first of Iraq and then, by an inevitable contagion, the rest of the eastern Arab world. Hizbullah, that most successful of anti-Israeli insurgencies, grew out of a single failed and fratricidal state. What might an entire failed region throw up?
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003