It seems that these days, people and politicians in most Middle Eastern countries believe that their country is the next target of U.S. regime-change. Syrians believe that because of their animosity with Israel they are next. Iranians are convinced that the U.S. tanks, currently in Baghdad, will soon turn to the right and head for the Iranian border.
In Pakistan the government of President Mosharraf is worried that despite close cooperation with the U.S. anti-terror program, it is next on the list because of its nuclear weapons and powerful Islamic parties. To reduce the risk of a U.S. invasion and increase its legitimacy Mr. Mosharraf has reportedly approached the exile politicians Binazir Buto and Navaz Sharif and invited them to return to Pakistan. Similarly, newspapers and political analysts in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and even in the faraway Muslim country of Indonesia are speculating that their country will be next on American list.
And what is the U.S. administration saying about all of this? Noting so far other than an announcement by one high-ranking official that U.S. did not have any plan for attacking Iran or Syria after Iraq. However, at the same time U.S. issued strong warnings to both countries about interfering in Iraq, which to the people and governments of Iran and Syria sounded like saying watch out you might be next. So the field remains open to speculation as to who might be next. However, there are reasons to believe that U.S. will not initiate an Iraqi style regime change in any other Muslim country – at least not in the next few months or possibly up to November 2004.
The collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime took less than a month but U.S. military will be engaged in Iraq for several months while an interim government consolidates its hold and establishes order. It is unlikely that U.S. will launch a regime-change war against another country during this period. Instead, the Bush administration is most likely to focus its attention on the new road map for the Middle East peace.
The U.S. will give priority to this issue for two important reasons. First, Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has proven his loyalty to President Bush, despite all the political risks at home, has asked for it. Mr. Bush feels obligated to return Mr. Blair's favor in supporting the Iraq war by handing him a victory on the Middle East peace process. Second, the U.S. hopes to improve its image in the Arab world and further legitimize the Iraq campaign by actively pushing for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Earlier this year there were some speculations that U.S. will wait till 2004 elections before getting seriously involved in the Road Map for Peace initiative. However, recent statements by the National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice indicate that the Bush administration is ready to demand Israel's compliance with the road map even before the November elections. She and several other administration officials have indicated that the time-table and the content of the “road map” are non-negotiable.
So far the Israeli government has been critical of the “road map”. If this resistance continues it might have an adverse effect on U.S.-Israeli relations and at some point Israeli voters might decide to replace Mr. Sharon with a more moderate leader. So Israel is likely to be the next Middle East country to experience a “regime” change as a result of U.S. policies in the region. This time, however, the change will be brought about by the Israeli voters who realize that saying no to America might not be in their country's best interest.
Aside from the priority of the Middle East peace process, the Bush administration might be reluctant to launch a new military campaign close to the 2004 presidential election. The U.S. economy is already faced with high budget and balance of payment deficits. The economy is expected to gradually recover over the next 12 months. A new military campaign against a Middle Eastern country is costly and could hurt the U.S. economic recovery. Unless there is a strong provocation, such as another major terrorist attack against American targets, the voters might not support another preemptive military campaign soon after Iraq and hence the Bush administration might prefer to postpone any additional regime-change initiatives until after the elections.
Yet a third reason for American reluctance to target another Middle Eastern country is the international opposition. The global opposition to a second American preemptive military operation is likely to be even stronger than the case of Iraq, which had damaged its international image by invading Kuwait. Furthermore based on recent statements by British government officials, the United Kingdom is unlikely to join the United States in any future preemptive military operations against Iran or Syria.
So, all the countries that believe that they might be next on U.S. regime-change list can relax – at least for the next few months. They can use this breathing period to develop a better understanding of the U.S. foreign policy. If they are still convinced that they are next, then they should try to figure out what they can do to get off the list. Alternatively, they could use this interval to prepare for a potential military confrontation. An important step that could both, reduce the risk of a U.S. attack and increase the loyalty of citizens in the event of an attack; is democratic reform. By adhering to the universally accepted principals of democracy and respect for human rights a regime can enhance its legitimacy both at home and abroad.
Nader Habibi works for an economic consulting firm in Philadelphia as a regional specialist for Persian Gulf. His latest publication is a social satire novel called Atul's Quest (Aventine Press, 2003).