Ever since it turned out that Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction were the equivalent of a toy pistol in a bank robber's hand, people have wondered why he maintained the illusion. The suggestion I've heard in café conversations in Jerusalem always made most sense to me: Saddam was much more scared of Iran than of the United States, and wanted at least the silhouette of a deterrent. This was a bad gamble, but then so was invading Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. To the extent that the Bush administration convinced itself, and not just the public, that the toy was real, it failed to consider what the Middle East looked like from the inside. It regarded Iran and Iraq as co-members of an anti-American "axis of evil." But Saddam had more enemies than just America. And rulers of Mesopotamia have been afraid of Persia for much longer than the United States has been part of the picture.
So I got a certain satisfaction when Ilan Goldenberg of the National Security Network alerted me to the CBS interview with the FBI agent who interrogated Saddam. In Saddam's view, the FBI man explained, imaginary weapons of mass destruction "kept the Iranians away. It kept them from reinvading Iraq." This is secondary testimony, I recognize, not proof. Someone in the administration could be putting out an alibi: That awful Saddam fooled us. If so, it's a poor alibi, because it involves pleading guilty to thoroughly misunderstanding the Middle East.
This isn't new. Washington once looked at the Middle East mainly as an arena of the Cold War, a battleground between the forces of good and evil. A fine example is Henry Kissinger's description in White House Years of the September 1970 civil war in Jordan, when King Hussein's army defeated the PLO. During the fighting, Syria invaded Jordan, then retreated under threat from Israel. Kissinger portrays the conflict as an American-Soviet game of chess. The United States had to prevent Soviet-backed "radicalization" of the Mideast. Dr. K. writes that he played tough by deciding not to call the Russians. "Let them come to us," he said. He phoned Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel's ambassador in Washington, to ask Israel to intervene. Syria is a Soviet knight, so Kissinger uses Israel as American rook.
This leaves out some small things, like Palestinian nationalism, the PLO's need for a base to attack Israel, Israel's need to prevent that, and Syrian designs on Jordan. It also leaves out the fact that Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon ordered that tanks be moved --by daylight, as visibly as possible -- from southern Israel to a potential launching point in the north, before anyone called him from Washington. The supposed rooks, knights and bishops knew how to move on their on, for their own reasons. Yes, the Cold War context existed, there were superpower-client relations, but they were just part of the story.
As revealing is Kissinger's portrayal of the 1974 Greek-Turkish crisis in Cyprus. For America, he says, it posed the "as yet unfamiliar dilemma of ethnic conflict." Whence one learns that he didn't notice ethnic factors elsewhere in the Middle East. But why beat up on Dr. K.? He was not unusual for being a Cold Warrior, only for writing so well about it.
Eventually the Soviets deserted their side of the chess board, leaving Washington without a simple scheme for understanding the Middle East. The Clinton-era policy of "dual containment" of Iran and Iraq, whatever its flaws, at least recognized that the region was multipolar. Even understanding that one's enemy's enemy is not necessarily one's friend reflects more complex thinking. An early critic of dual containment, I should note, wrote that the policy suffered internal contradictions. An implied goal was the collapse of Saddam's regime, but a power vacuum in Iraq would certainly empower Iran. The sanguine critic did not predict that the United States would create the vacuum itself.
Then George W. Bush and his crew of neocons came to power. The neocons are Cold Warriors sorry that it was cold. Their policy vision is quasi-theological: Whether or not there is a God, there is most certainly a devil. The evil empire is gone, but the axis of evil is present. It would not do to compromise with the devil, or contain him. His territory must be pushed back, transferred to democracy and American hegemony. This way of thinking restores a sense of order when looking at the Middle East -- two sides, facing each other. Of course Saddam and Al-Qaeda were in cahoots: They are both bad, so they must be allies. In this conception, the new world order looks just like the old -- it is bipolar.
We know the result: a long string of disastrous miscalculations. If Saddam's interrogator is right, the Bush administration ignored the dictator's need to maintain the illusion of a deterrent against his neighbor. Put differently, it ignored the Iranian and Iraqi nationalism that led the two countries to war in the past. Imagining an Iraqi democracy, Bush and Co. also ignored the internal communal battle that would be released when Saddam was gone. The American invasion has eliminated the counterbalance to Iran and increased its power in the region.
Meanwhile, a U.S. veto on Israel negotiating with Syria has blocked any possibility of a peace agreement. The administration won't talk to Iran, either. It wants regime change. But a new regime won't eliminate Iranian nationalism, or Iranian fears of the ring of nuclear powers around it. Regional détente might convince Teheran that it could give up the shimmering threat of developing the bomb and stop arming proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah. The possibility is at least worth exploring. Instead, Bush toured the Middle East last month, trying to align all the chess pieces against Iran. As Tel Aviv University researcher Joshua Teitelbaum has written, Bush got a cool reception in Riyadh. The Saudis "have little patience for a president weakened by failure in Iraq," says Teitelbaum, an expert on the kingdom. They "want a policy of containment, not confrontation," which makes sense: People who live in row houses don't set fires to the home of even a despised neighbor. So they have sought their own, separate thaw with Teheran. Saudi Arabia, it turns out, is another rook with a mind of its own.
"Many in Riyadh … await a new president" who can repair relations, Teitelbaum concludes. Not only in Riyadh, obviously. If Bush's successor wants to bring some stability to the region, and restore America's profile, he or she should start by mapping the complex rivalries and divisions at work. The chessboard model won't work.