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Secret State Dept. Report Disputing Bush Claim on Arab ‘Domino Effect’

WASHINGTON — The State Department is circulating a classified report dismissing the White House claim that a regime change in Iraq would trigger a push for democracy throughout the Arab world.

The report strongly criticizes the controversial prediction of a post-Saddam Hussein democratic “domino effect” in the Middle East, the Forward has learned. It was put together by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, an agency that produces independent intelligence assessment reports. Officials at the State Department have taken the unusual step of sending the secret report to a select group of legislators on Capitol Hill.

Congressional staffers confirmed the existence of the report, but refused to disclose any details, citing the document’s classified status.

The report appears to contradict a nationally televised speech delivered by President Bush February 26, in which he argued that “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.” In addition to undermining a chief administration argument in favor of invasion, the report could also signal a new round of policy battles between the State and Defense departments.

In recent weeks, Secretary of State Colin Powell has increasingly aligned himself publicly with the views of leading Pentagon hawks on the question of whether to invade Iraq. But observers predicted that this inter-agency truce is likely to collapse over the post-war question of whether to launch a wider democratization campaign.

Administration supporters of a democratization campaign are getting advice from several respected scholars of Middle Eastern affairs, including Bernard Lewis of Princeton University and Fuad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, veteran diplomats and analysts at the State Department are rejecting the idea of a democratization push as a risky and even misguided campaign, ideologically propelled by neo-conservatives in key positions at the White House and the Pentagon.

Several State Department officials and congressional staffers, speaking on condition of anonymity, predicted that the question of how to encourage democratization in the Middle East would become a hotly debated issue within the administration and on Capitol Hill after an Iraq war. “At the moment, legislators view this as a secondary matter that is not germane to the actual cause of war,” said a staffer for a senior House Democrat. “But Democrats — and some Republicans as well — will surely want to tackle this.”

Several observers said that the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research is probably circulating its report with an eye toward influencing any future congressional debate.

Known as INR, the bureau frequently produces reports questioning foreign policy drives, according to several congressional staffers and former bureau officials. But, they added, the bureau seldom sends its reports to Capitol Hill.

“INR is known for taking issue with ideologically motivated foreign policies,” said Phillip Wilcox, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. “But its papers usually are not shared with Congress.”

State Department sources speculated that the paper may have been sent to congressional leaders because foreign-service operatives — particularly Arab affairs specialists — have strong doubts that a “domino effect” policy is viable or worth pursuing. These critics argue that the public declarations about democratizing the Arab world are counterproductive on several fronts.

First, critics say, the prospect of a “tsunami of democracy” in the Arab world, as one official cynically described it, is highly unlikely. Second, critics argue, talk of deposing Saddam in order to spark widespread democracy is causing more resentment and hostility within the Arab public than anticipation and hope, and thus increasing the region’s already strong anti-American sentiments. Finally, some worry that focusing on democratizing the wider Arab world will divert attention from the immediate post-war objective of securing a reasonably democratic, effective and stable government in Baghdad.

Critics are even challenging the underlying premise of the domino theory advanced by administration hawks: that a democratic regime can be established in Iraq following an American-led invasion.

But, White House sources say, the president and his staff have been receiving much more optimistic behind-the-scenes advice from Lewis and Ajami, reinforcing the administration’s resolve to use an offensive against Iraq as a springboard to bring about a wholesale transformation of the Arab world.

Ajami laid out the rationale for a democratizing campaign in a post-Saddam Middle East in an article in the January/February issue of the influential Foreign Affairs journal. In the article, Ajami wrote that the specter of Arab rage over an American invasion of Iraq should not deter the United States from launching a democratizing campaign, because anti-American rage is an inherent feature of the Arab society. Ajami argued that having a reformed Arab world would be in America’s long-term interest.

Some in the administration view democratization as a vital part of the war against terrorism, a key step in drying the swamps that spawn anti-Western sentiment. Other presidential aides view it as an American mission to export God-given rights and universal values to the world, as Bush implied in recent comments.

Critics, however, say such ambitious and theologically driven views are producing a current-day policy as flawed and dangerous as the attempts three decades ago to combat the original “domino effect.” The term was originally coined to describe the theory held during the 1950s and 1960s that a communist takeover in Vietnam would spark similar revolutions in country after country until all of Southeast Asia was under Soviet influence.

“The domino theory was not a particularly good theory then, and it’s not particularly good now,” said Mary Ann Tetrault, a professor of international affairs at Trinity University in Texas who has written extensively on democracy in the Arab world. “Going communist in 1955 or 1965 is very much like going democratic in 2005. And that is essentially a process that works from the bottom up — and with democratization much more so than with the takeover of authoritarian regimes. So that if what we are looking for is democratization, the idea that you can impose some kind of government through war in one country and then have this percolate through other countries — there is no mechanism to do this.”

Tetrault and other Middle East experts opposed to the administration said that the American campaign to push for democratic reform through an invasion of Iraq may actually weaken the timid process of reform already underway for several years in several Gulf states and other Arab countries, including Jordan and Morocco.

If Arab leaders “thought they were at any risk from democratic movements, their reaction would not be to liberalize, but they would crack down,” said Martin Indyk, a two-time American ambassador to Israel and the current head of the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Another unintended consequence of the administration’s new domino theory, critics said, could be the empowerment of militants — Islamic or otherwise — through democracy. That argument is often made by Israeli politicians and scholars.

Proponents of a democratization campaign reject such criticisms. First, they counter, any campaign would be carried out gradually, adhering to the Hippocratic oath of “do no harm,” as Richard Haas, director of Policy Planning at the State Department, recently said. Second, supporters insist, reforms would be encouraged, rather than imposed on other countries. Finally, they argue, it is deeply unfair to assume that Muslim societies are inherently undemocratic. As Bush said in his February speech: “It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world… is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life.”

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