- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

Only a month ago, the war against Iraq started and virtually ended last week with the fall of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Hardly a shot was fired as television journalists and then U.S. Marines poured into that city.
The coalition continues mopping up scattered resistance. And the more difficult task of pacifying and rebuilding Iraq begins. The takeoff was at best ragged.
While the future stability and prosperity of Iraq are still unknowable qualities, the Bush administration turned toward Damascus and Bashar Assad, the 37-year-old British-trained ophthalmologist and successor as Syrian president to his father, the formidable Hafez Assad.
Damascus was repeatedly warned by President Bush and senior administration officials to turn over escaped Iraqi leaders along with any weapons of mass destruction Syria may have received from Iraq or produced itself.
The Bush administration announced it had no war plans at the ready to march to Damascus. But astute White House observers believe some in the administration have little patience for Syrian refusal to comply with this demarche. And the argument that waiting for compliance, as with the vanquished and unlamented Saddam, is a waste of time has also been heard among White House ranks.
So what will it be: demarche and political and economic pressure on Iraq or a march to Damascus to end the regime of at least a de facto member of the axis of evil? And if it is the latter, will the administration stop there? Are Tehran and Pyongyang also in line for a dose of what Saddam got?
With Easter at hand, biblical tales are appropriate, certainly as metaphors for where the administration may be headed. First is Paul on the road to Damascus. Second is Moses leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land. And third is Samson in the temple.
Paul, of course, encountered God, found religion and his calling on his famous journey to Damascus. In this metaphor, the Bush administration is set on its goals. They are to complete the strategic transformation of the Middle East and Persian Gulf by eliminating evil regimes and ensuring the transition to the more peaceful and stable benefits of democracy and democratic governments. Syria may yield peacefully. It may not. But buoyed by the successes in Afghanistan and now Iraq, the administration is confident that force can work if needed. Converted to this mission, Damascus would indeed be the next stop. And the prospect for favorably realigning the entire Middle East would seem obtainable.
Moses, of course, spent 40 years wandering throughout the wilderness before he discovered Israel. Along the way, he was entrusted with the Ten Commandants. And, it was his fate never to see the Promised Land, dying just before his journey ended. To the cynical, the Sinai seemed too small for anyone to wander for that long. However, that is a small criticism.
In this case, the Bush administration would wander in its journey to change the geopolitical map of the Middle East. Ultimately, it might find its way to journey's end. However that would come after the administration left office.
During that journey, it is also unknowable whether force or nonviolent means would suffice in achieving its aims. And as for a modern version of the Ten Commandants, that would be a powerful legacy if such a set of tablets could indeed be etched in the political landscape.
Finally is Samson in the Philistine Temple. That case has been put before in this column. As Samson destroyed the pillars of that edifice, the Bush administration may be dismantling the building blocks on which American security has rested for nearly 60 years. If that trend continues, and wars against Syria, Iran and even North Korea are waged, the consequences could be the continued disintegration of America's security. On the other hand, Samson might be persuaded to use his strength differently with more positive effects.
While the administration considers its choices and the battle for the president's heart and mind is joined, there are positive actions that can be taken. Soon, the administration should call for an international peace conference on the future of Iraq. Large and small powers, international organizations from the United Nations and NATO to the World Bank and other NGOs should be present. The objective is to set the metrics for defining the road ahead and to receive pledges for people, money and other resources needed to reconstruct Iraq under the rule of law.
Ultimately, there must be a conference on peace in the Middle East and resolving the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This will be the most painful of all nettles to grab. However, even if Iraq turns out to be a spectacular success, this "mother of all disputes" in the region must finally be resolved if there ever is to be lasting peace.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times. His next planned book is "Operation Iraqi Freedom: Master Stroke or Overkill?"

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