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Who benefits?

10/01/07 5:55PM By Olin Robison
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(HOST) Commentator Olin Robison has been thinking about the war in Iraq, and what the outcome may really mean in the long term - for us, for Iraq and especially for Iran.

(ROBISON) I recently talked about having attended the annual meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Institute is headquartered in London but usually holds their annual session somewhere else - this year in Geneva, Switzerland.

No one will find it surprising that much of the discussion this year focused on Iraq and what may or may not come next. The US involvement there was generally characterized as a "misadventure,""a mess","a fiasco," "a debacle," and consistently as "a colossal failure of leadership." I did not hear from any source any comment to the contrary.

There was complete and total agreement that the number one beneficiary of what is happening in Iraq is Iran.

There was also a repeatedly expressed consensus that power relationships in the region are now rapidly changing. Most seemed to think that if there is an attempt by the US or Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear and/or oil facilities, that it would probably be successful in the short term but disastrous in the longer term.

The longer I listened the more I became convinced that yet again the Law of Unintended Consequences is very much in play in the Middle East. I do not for a minute think that President Bush, Vice-President Cheney and their neoconservative advisers foresaw what is now happening. Could they have? Maybe. We simply do not know. But we should know by now that Jeffersonian democracy does not spring full blown from all soil. That notion - which, when reduced to its simplest form, assumes that everyone in the world wants first and foremost to be like us - is just nonsense.

One exceptionally thoughtful Arab scholar at the conference took the position that Radical Islam indeed has a strategy, which is that the ideas that underlie western democracies will in time give way. It is a long-term strategy of attrition. The terrorists in his view do not have a long-term end-game plan except complete disruption over time.

In the international world of policy making all eyes these days are on Iran. There is no easy answer. It is hard to find a cause for optimism.

First, there is very little imaginative leadership anywhere at the moment.

Second, there are numerous forces in the region that are dedicated to destabilizing wherever possible, Think Lebanon; think the horn of Africa; think Gaza.

Third, now, dear friends, with these things in mind plus both Iraq and Iran, try to be an optimist.

The patron saint of strategic thinkers is Sir Michael Howard, now retired from Oxford University. One of the many things he has famously said is that one of the few things we know about war is that sooner or later all wars end.

What he does not say - as far as I know - is that some wars go on for a very long time. I predict that in this new age of "asymmetrical warfare" it is going to last a very long time.

The challenge for western democracies is going to be whether we can outlast the bad guys.

That is going to take perseverance, determination and creative leadership. Luck will also help.

O.K. Let's see if we're up to it!

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.
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