As the Bush administration debates going to war against Iraq, its most hawkish members are pushing a sweeping vision for the Middle East that sees the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq as merely a first step in the region's transformation.
The argument for reshaping the political landscape in the Mideast has been pushed for years by some Washington think tanks and in hawkish circles. It is now being considered as a possible US policy with the ascent of key hard-liners in the administration — from Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith in the Pentagon to John Hannah and Lewis Libby on the vice president's staff and John Bolton in the State Department, analysts and officials say.
Iraq, the hawks argue, is just the first piece of the puzzle. After an ouster of Hussein, they say, the United States will have more leverage to act against Syria and Iran, will be in a better position to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and will be able to rely less on Saudi oil.
The thinking does not represent official US policy. But increasingly the argument has served as a justification for a military attack against Iraq, and elements of the strategy have emerged in speeches by administration officials, most prominently Vice President Dick Cheney.
"The goal is not just a new regime in Iraq. The goal is a new Middle East," said Raad Alkadiri, an Iraq analyst with PFC, a Washington-based energy consulting organization. "The goal has been and remains one of the main driving factors of preemptive action against Iraq."
Cheney revealed some of the thinking in a speech in August when he made the administration's case for a regime change. He argued Hussein's overthrow would "bring about a number of benefits to the region" and enhance US ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace," he told the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The arguments are, by no means, uniform, and critics dismiss some as wishful thinking. Even among neoconservatives who see an attack on Iraq as a first step toward transforming the Mideast, there are debates over how far-reaching and fast the change will be.
The more modest version sees an attack as sending a message to the rest of the region, making clear the US is prepared to unilaterally deploy its military power to achieve its goals, objectives, and values.
Among its most extreme versions was a view elaborated in a briefing in July by a Rand Corp. researcher to the Defense Policy Board — an advisory group to the Pentagon led by Richard Perle, a leading hawk.
That briefing urged the United States to deliver an ultimatum to the Saudi government to cut its ties to militant Islam or risk seizure of its oil fields and overseas assets. It called Iraq "the tactical pivot" and Saudi Arabia "the strategic pivot."
Within those poles some clear themes are emerging, and Saudi Arabia receives much of the attention, analysts and officials say.
Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, contends that a pro-US Iraq would lead to a reassessment of the US-Saudi alliance, which dates to World War II but has become strained since Sept. 11 attacks, and the worsening of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A friendly Iraq — home to the world's second-largest oil reserves — would provide an alternative to Saudi Arabia for basing US troops. Its oil reserves would make Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, less important in setting prices, he said. In general, others contend, a US-allied Iraq could work to diminish the influence of OPEC, long dominated by Saudi Arabia, over oil supplies and prices.
"We would be much more in a position of strength vis-a-vis the Saudis," Clawson said. Others espousing the vision see potential changes in Syria and Iran, as well. The fallout from an attack on Iraq could bring to a head the longstanding power struggle in Iran between conservatives in the clerical leadership and reformers grouped around President Mohammad Khatami.
Some see the reformers invigorated by the example of a democratic Iraq, or even a surge in popular discontent leading to far-reaching change. At the very least, they argue, the show of US power would give the administration more leverage in pressuring Iran over its suspected missile and nuclear programs.
The United States could exert that same leverage in forcing an end to Syrian support for Lebanon's Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim guerrilla group allied with Iran that opposes Israel. A powerful corollary of the strategy is that a pro-US Iraq would make the region safer for Israel and, indeed, its staunchest proponents are ardent supporters of the Israeli right-wing. Administration officials, meanwhile, have increasingly argued that the onset of an Iraq allied to the US would give the administration more sway in bringing about a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though Cheney and others have offered few details on precisely how.
"Maybe we do stir the pot and see what comes up," one US official said.
In its broadest terms, the advocates argue that a democratic Iraq would unleash similar change elsewhere in the Arab world — an argument resonant among Bush administration officials who have increasingly called for change in a region where Western-style democracy is virtually nonexistent.
"Everyone will flip out, starting with the Saudis," said Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "It will send shock waves throughout the Arab world.
"Look, we already are pushing for democracy in the Palestinian Authority — though not with a huge amount of success — and we need a little bit more of a heavy-handed approach," she said. "But if we can get a democracy in the Palestinian Authority, democracy in Iraq, get the Egyptians to improve their human rights and open up their system, it will be a spectacular change. After a war with Iraq, then you really shape the region."
Critics call the arguments misguided at best, with tragic worst-case scenarios.
"There are some people who religiously believe that Iraq is the beginning of this great new adventure of remapping the Middle East and all these countries. I think that's a simplistic view," said Judith Yaphe, an Iraq scholar and senior research professor at the National Defense University.
Jessica T. Mathews, president of Carnegie Endownment for International Peace, a Washington policy group, said that installing a democracy in Iraq, much less the rest of the Middle East, would be extraordinarily difficult, if not out of the question. She contended that change in Iraq is more akin to building a wall brick by brick and will require the support of allies.
"The argument we would be starting a democratic wave in Iraq is pure blowing smoke," Mathews said. "You have 22 Arab governments and not one has made any progress toward democracy, not one. It's one of the great issues before us, but the very last place you'd suspect to turn the tide is Iraq. You don't go from an" authoritarian " dictatorship to a democracy overnight, not even quickly."
Nevertheless, there are signs the thinking has powerful backers.
While many of the hawks are under the wing of Wolfowitz, several conservatives hold influential positions in Cheney's office and in the State Department, which is headed by the administration's most prominent moderate, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. During the Clinton administration, many of them served with far-right, defense-oriented think tanks such as the Center for Security Policy and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
Perle, an adviser to both groups, remains a resident fellow at the hawkish American Enterprise Institute and a member of the board at the Hudson Institute.
"There are people invested in this philosophy all throughout the administration. Some of the strongest voices are in State," said one senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The most vocal hawk at the State Department is Bolton, who holds two titles — undersecretary for arms control and international proliferation and senior adviser to the president for arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament.www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/253/nation/Iraq_war_hawks_have_plans_to_reshape_entirE-mail this article