Mideast Heats Up After a Temperate Spring

The so-called "Arab spring" has given way to a broiling, unstable summer, according to the head of a Center City think-tank. To be sure, said Harvey Sicherman, president and director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the hope for stability generated by orderly elections by the Iraqis, the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese may be wilting in the heat of recent Mideast events.

Nonetheless, even with the odds stacked against democracy ever taking root throughout the Middle East, the United States has no better option than to continue betting on the long shot, advised Sicherman at a Aug. 4 morning lecture at the organization's Walnut Street office.

Sicherman – who holds a doctorate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and served in the State Department under presidents Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush – took issue with statements from military brass hinting at a possible U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as early as next spring. He contended that such a stance sends the wrong message to Iraqis seeking to undermine the American-backed constitutional process currently under way in the emerging republic.

"Each side can take this to mean, 'Go ahead and sign whatever they want you to sign. Meanwhile, arm yourself for the next showdown,' " said Sicherman.

Though he offered no vision of Iraq's future government, he did identify three red lines that Iraq's constitutional body can never cross: a dictatorship from the minority Sunni population, such as the one that existed under deposed leader Saddam Hussein; a Shi'ite Muslim Islamic theocracy like that in Iran; or an independent Kurdish nation in Iraq's northern reaches.

Even more, he advocated the use of U.S. military force to ensure against these possibilities, cautioning that if Iraq's ethnic groups become convinced they could attain such goals, the country could erupt into civil war.

He added that anything respecting the "three no's" would be "democracy in my book."

But Sicherman went beyond Iraq in his hour-long speech.

Wearing his trademark bow tie and large glasses, the policy wonk spoke about the Middle East's two other flashpoints: Lebanon and the West Bank/Gaza Strip. Despite promising pro-democracy movements in these areas, he said that "the bad news is an awful lot of people [have] guns, [have] no hesitation to use them, [and] don't like" the move toward free elections.

On the latter front, he noted that while the region had seen relative calm during the months since the ascension of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, violence directed at Israelis has returned to pre-cease-fire levels.

'Going to Be a Shootout'
In advance of Israel's looming evacuation of the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, Sicherman argued that Abbas is an ineffectual leader who's failed to control Palestinian terror.

"Nobody's afraid of Abu Mazen," he declared, referring to the Abbas pseudonym. "Everybody knows that there is going to be a shootout sooner or later."

In a question-and-answer session, audience member David Rosenberg expressed skepticism about America's involvement in Iraq. He said that while he feels American troops need to remain in Iraq until the job is done, he also feels the cause may be lost.

The 63-year-old pointed to an Aug. 2 roadside bomb that ripped into an amphibious assault vehicle, killing 14 Marine reservists, as evidence of the futility of the situation.

Addressing such uncertainty, Sicherman invoked a mandate he used repeatedly during his talk: "We have to stick with it. We've seen the alternative."



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