Monday, December 25, 2006

In much of the world, friends and foes alike challenge America’s pre-eminence. Pakistan’s “Frontier Post,” reflecting the euphoria of Muslim fundamentalism, asked: “Which country will ‘supplant’ America? Such an entity must possess a huge population, abundant resources, a universal ideology, and the political will to succeed. The most obvious candidate is the Muslim world under the Caliphate.”

“WatchingAmericadotcom” conveys a bleak picture of how the rest of the world views the 79 recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group (ISG). Whichever way you slice ‘em and dice ‘em, the report’s 104 pages spell failure. Some of its harshest critics in America say they’re a recipe for surrender. Abroad, they’re seen as a tacit recognition of defeat.

From Buenos Aires to Berlin and from Brussels to Beijing, ISG was a devastating indictment of a multibillion-dollar boondoggle. In Tehran and Pyongyang, the two remaining capitals in the “axis of evil,” and in Damascus, axis of lesser evil, cliches bristled about paper tigers and giants-with-feet-of-clay. That is precisely why President Bush is not about to accept ISG’s findings. Mr. Bush sees himself as a lone Winston Churchill figure from the 1930s railing against his somnolent colleagues as they appeased Adolf Hitler. And like Churchill at the end of World War II, he was not elected to preside over the dissolution of the American empire.

Reinforcing Mr. Bush’s gut feeling recently was a paper by Gen. Chuck Wald, recently retired as EUCOM commander, and Chuck Vollmer, President of VII Inc, which does strategic analysis for the Pentagon. “With the entry of Iran into the equation,” they wrote, “the next phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom could possibly include… a major invasion of Iran and pro-Iranian forces against Western forces in the region and Israel, and/or a global energy crisis.

“Rather than planning withdrawal from Iraq,” says the Wald-Vollmer paper, “we may be better served to plan for repositioning in this strategically important region. While withdrawal may be necessary in Iraq, withdrawal from the region would precipitate a global balance-of-power shift toward the Iran-Russia-China axis, which would be very detrimental for the energy dependent West.”

For international opinion, the now free Iraqi media’s description is even bleaker than the hourly recitation of the latest horrors on CNN and FOX. A lawless Baghdad “Descends into Chaos,” said the headline in the newspaper Azzaman. “Trust levels between U.S. and Iraqi officers are low,” said a Page One story. “Baghdad is at the mercy of savage militias and gunmen have taken the law into their own hands. Kidnappings and assassinations are now on a scale never seen before. U.S. and Iraqi troops are powerless to restore any semblance of order anywhere in the city. Most of the carnage in the city goes unreported and the world sees only a fraction of the daily atrocities.

“Ethnic cleansing of an unheard of scale is under way,” Azzaman said. “Entire neighborhoods are being emptied of members of opposing sects… there are even reports of a few being burned alive. These forced evacuations have resulted in the transfer of hundreds of thousands of people from one neighborhood to another or outside Baghdad. They leave behind their homes, careers and even personal belongings.

“Every day, conditions are worse than the day before. And amid this unprecedented surge of violence, Baghdadis have had to cope with chronic shortages of power, fuel, water and other basic essentials.

“And still there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The city’s hapless inhabitants are more pessimistic about the future than ever before.”

For Mr. Bush, this was no time to go wobbly, as Margaret Thatcher, when she was prime minister, urged his father not to do after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. A bigger danger than Iraq is Iran. It would stand to gain most from a U.S. defeat in Iraq. And Iran has also made clear it has no intention of abandoning its nuclear ambitions.

Israel is obsessed about Iran. Acute but understandable paranoia has replaced rational discourse. Lebanon was a disaster for Israel and Iraq a disaster for America.

Some political soothsayers in Washington predict Mr. Bush is limbering up for the biggest U-turn in his political life. Think again. The French have an expression for what will probably come next — “La fuite en avant.” The literal translation doesn’t hack it. Loosely interpreted, it means evading an issue with a headlong rush somewhere else.

Israel also has plenty of reasons for alarm in the ISG report. When Baker-Hamilton talk about a Palestinian settlement that includes the “right of return” for millions of Palestinians, this can only mean, in Israeli eyes, the destruction of the purely Jewish state, on par with the bats in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s belfry when he says the Holocaust never happened and therefore Israel should be wiped off the map.

“Iran is the bully of the neighborhood,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said last week, “and the international community cannot afford not to stop it.”

The major problem with “bombs away” over Iran’s nuclear installations is that Mr. Ahmadinejad may be asking Allah for just that. It would coalesce worldwide Muslim opinion behind the latest “victim of Zionist American imperialism.” It would also produce the kind of regional mayhem Mr. Ahmadinejad sees as a precondition for the return to Earth of the 12th Imam, the Mahdi. He’s the 5-year-old boy who vanished 1,100 years ago who will lead the world back to prosperity under the banner of Islam.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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