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Reverse Domino Theory

Is George W. Bush applying the “Domino Theory” to the countries of the Middle East?

February 20, 2003

Is George W. Bush applying the "Domino Theory" to the countries of the Middle East?

The "domino theory" of the 1960s went like this: If Vietnam "went" — that is, if it fell into the hands of the communists — then the "rot" would not stop with neighboring Laos and Cambodia.

From those three countries, it would then spread to all of Southeast Asia. Especially giant, oil-rich Indonesia would follow soon after. And before long, the communist hoards would be at the gates of India — and salivating over the enticingly empty shorelines of northwestern Australia itself.

Why was that theory so popular at the time? A key reason was that American policymakers back in the 1960s were very hesitant to plunge headlong into the Vietnam War.

Even General Douglas MacArthur — the generally gung-ho conqueror, proconsul and visionary champion of America's Asian hegemony — was against it. So was his fellow five-star hero, General Omar N. Bradley. And so was Bradley’s old friend (and MacArthur's political nemesis), wily, wise old Dwight D. Eisenhower.

And President John F. Kennedy — who ultimately decided to slip into the conflict that became Vietnam — expressed growing skepticism and fears about U.S. policy in Southeast Asia in the months before he was assassinated.

Even JFK’s successor Lyndon Baines Johnson, that hyper-energetic exemplar of Texan drive and ambition, had his doubts. While he usually combined this energy with New Deal "can-do" liberal optimism, he was tormented by sleepless nights.

And then, he took the fateful decision to pour hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops into that bottomless pit. So in they all went.

Their collective fear of having to take the blame for letting Southeast Asia turn into a bastion of communism by letting countries fall into the hands of Soviet or Chinese minders was too much of a worry to them to avoid engagement.

And when that zealous mission came unraveled, things did not, of course, turn out as predicted and/or feared. Even when a ruined Indo-China finally went communist lock, stock and barrel in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, all that happened was that all three countries — Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — simply imploded.

They went into a political and military black hole — as well as economic and human rights disaster. It took nearly 20 years before even Vietnam, the relative giant among them, began to emerge.

The country still remains decades, perhaps generations behind its ASEAN neighbors to the south — not to mention gigantic China to the north. Thus, not only was the "domino theory" wrong, it predicted the reverse of what actually happened.

Now the Bush Administration is at it again — only using the domino concept as a positive, rather than negative, call to action.

President Bush and his top advisors are keen to topple Saddam to unleash a "march toward democracy" in the Middle East — as Condoleezza Rice put it.

According to the Bush Administration doctrine, Iraq is but the first of the Middle Eastern countries that — following liberation and regime change — will become democratic. Soon after, pulled by the magic forces of democratization, countries such as Syria and Libya are supposed to follow suit.

President Bush hinted at this vision when he told the United Nations in September 2002, "The people of Iraq can shake off their captivity. They can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world."

To avoid any misunderstanding: We are among the last ever to belittle the benefits of democracy. But there is an important distinction between wishful thinking — and hard-nosed realities on the ground.

One of the most amazing aspects of the Bush Administration's high-risk strategy is that — despite how wonderful it might sound — the maneuver could backfire for Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

All three countries are ruled by (more or less) pro-Western autocrats. An invasion of Iraq will surely put pressure on those autocrats — just as the proponents of the democracy experiment believe.

But the pressure will not be what U.S. boosters of the "Democracy Now" movement seem to expect. An invasion of Iraq will provide substantial arguments to those people in the three countries that argue the west — and its political system, democracy — is a disguise for colonialism.

That will help America's most ardent opponents to make a powerful case on the street for an alternative to the current rulers.

In the case of Egypt's President Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, the alternatives are extremely anti-American fundamentalist Muslim politicians and mullahs.

All three countries have walked an increasingly unstable tightrope over the past few years. In the case of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, this has been the result of a "pact with the devil."

Instead of fostering democracy, their rulers gambled that throwing crumbs at Islamic fundamentalists would help maintain political stability. Instead, that strategy nurtured the very opposition that the rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia wished to avoid.

Jordan's recent Kings — Hussein and Abdullah — have attempted greater strides toward democracy. But Jordan is a small country. And the blowback from the rest of the Arab world — not to mention the radicalizing impact of the Palestinian struggle with Israel — have created a frightening level of support in Jordan for anti-democratic fundamentalists.

And don't think that Osama bin Laden isn't paying attention. He is ready to cast his net wider than just these three core Arab countries. He pointed his finger more widely in an al-Jazeera statement: "Among the regions ready for liberation are Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan."

Put that on top of the virtual failure of the economies in all three countries. High unemployment adds fuel to the fire being heated up by the fundamentalists.

It is hard, even impossible, to imagine how the addition of a war in Iraq — even one to promote democracy there — will help maintain the stability of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

So the concern is that America’s real “dominoes” may topple and crash against one another in cataclysmic chain reaction before our eyes.

They are already tilting over — precisely because of the current effects of the U.S. government campaign of President George W. Bush.

The dominoes are indeed falling. And Uncle Sam is knocking them over himself.