Bull in the China Shop

The mood across the Mideast could not be grimmer. Criss-crossing the region and meeting with politicians, intelligence officials and businessmen reveals a pervasive feeling events are fast spinning out of control.

The destruction of a key Shia shrine in Samarra last week brought Iraq to the edge of all-out civil war. Some security officials here believe rogue Shia government troops blew up the mosque to steal the gold encrusting its dome. This criminal act provoked a Shia/Sunni bloodbath that left at least 1,300 dead.

Saudi Arabia and Jordan are quietly aiding Sunni forces in Iraq to counter growing Iranian influence over the Shia-run regime in Baghdad. Fears are even being expressed that Iraq’s civil conflict might ignite a Sunni/Shia war across the Mideast. Things are so bad in Iraq that a leading Israeli general just observed that overthrowing Saddam Hussein had been a mistake.

Even America’s staunchest Arab allies are deeply dismayed by the Bush administration’s destabilizing policies. Washington has become the proverbial bull in the Mideast china shop.

Neo-conservatives around Bush were working to overthrow Syria’s isolated regime. But just as another “regime change” appeared likely, they pulled back when it was clear the only alternative to Syria’s Asad regime was the long-persecuted underground Muslim Brotherhood.

Washington’s support of minority, anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon and clumsy political machinations there risk re-igniting the ferocious civil war of 1975—1990.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent Mideast trip designed to financially and politically strangle the democratically elected Hamas government in Palestine roused widespread rage and contempt.

America is being denounced as arrantly hypocritical for first pretending to promote democracy, then trying to crush its results. Hamas’ hard-line policies are not particularly popular in the region, but people feel the deepest anguish for the misery, suffering and dehumanization of Palestinians.

While the Bush administration trumpets Hamas’ refusal to so far accept Israel’s existence, Arabs keep asking why no pressure is put on Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, as the UN resolved, stop colonizing the West Bank and Golan, and dismantle its covert nuclear program. (While the U.S. threatens war against Iran over its limited nuclear program, it winks at Israel’s large nuclear arsenal. This glaring double standard is a primary cause of anti-American rage across the Muslim world.)

Egypt’s formerly petrified political system is beginning to wobble as Islamists gain momentum in spite of repression and vote-rigging. The Saudis escaped a potentially serious attack last week on their main oil complex. In Jordan, security is intense after the recent deadly bombing of an Amman hotel. The Danish cartoon drama enflamed anti-government passions from Morocco to Pakistan, shaking the entire region.

America’s allies in the Arab world and Pakistan are pleading with Washington to show some support for Palestinian rights and tone down what is seen across the Mideast as Bush’s anti-Islamic crusade. But Washington is heedless to the dangers faced by its allies.

Keynote speaker

The appearance of Vice President Dick Cheney as keynote speaker before the powerful Israel lobbying group AIPAC — which has been under FBI investigation for passing U.S. secrets to Israel — is being viewed, rightly or wrongly as ultimate proof of who really runs U.S. Mideast policy.

Most Mideasterners blame the U.S. for their current woes. Few blame themselves or the inept policies of Arab governments. Anti-American feeling has reached a boiling point as the region waits with dread for more upheavals and violence.