MADELEINE BRAND, host:
In Gaza today, Palestinian militant groups issued a series of demands for the life of a captured Israeli soldier. The soldier was seized yesterday, during a gun battle between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants. The militants want Palestinian women prisoners and children released from Israeli jails. Ted Koppel, NPR senior news analyst, is traveling in the Middle East this week, in search of some perspective on the troubled region. Koppel met with one senior Jordanian intelligence official who has one of many views.
TED KOPPEL reporting:
Consider the Jordanians as a canary in the Middle Eastern coalmine, an early warning system in a dangerous region that could become infinitely more dangerous. Certainly Jordan, small, vulnerable and ultra-sensitive to developing threats, is bracing itself for very bad times.
Jordan's King Abdullah II has been warning for some time now of the development of a Shiite crescent, an arc of Islamic fundamentalism stretching from the Persian Gulf to Egypt and beyond. Visiting Jordan a few days ago, I spent a couple of hours with a senior Jordanian intelligence official. Forget the Crescent, he told me. Before long, we may be looking at a full moon.
Like anyone else, the Jordanians are concerned first and foremost about their own security and welfare, but their worries should also resonate in Washington. My briefer, who didn't want to be identified by name or rank, so let's call him Mr. X, is particularly uneasy about the Bush administration strategy of promoting democracy in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Islamic fundamentalists, he told me, consider democratic reform to be like toilet paper. You use it once and then you throw it away.
There is no doubt in Mr. X's mind that the Shiites in Iraq are using democracy in this fashion simply to gain power, with no intention whatsoever of continuing democratic reform beyond that point. He contends that Washington only has two options in the region, and both, he concedes, are unpalatable. To promote democracy is to play into the hands of America's enemies: in Iraq, where the Shiites enjoy an overwhelming majority; among Palestinians in Gaza and on the West Bank, where Hamas, Sunni Muslims, but considered a terrorist organization by the United States, recently gained power in a free election; in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, also labeled terrorist by Washington; and in Egypt.
Egypt, he agrees, is run by an aging and corrupt leadership, but free elections there would simply put the Muslim Brotherhood, another Islamic fundamentalist party, in power. Mr. X's advice is to stick with the corrupt but friendly status quo of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, while offering similar unqualified support to the Saudis. Mr. X is a man of few illusions. Looking at Iraq today, he speaks wistfully of Saddam Hussein. Acknowledging freely that Saddam was incredibly brutal and outrageously corrupt, he reminds me that the Iraqi dictator was, at least, a wall against the expansion of Iranian power, and there is the main focus of all his worries.
We are, he says, embarking on a major power struggle between Iran and Islamic fundamentalism on the one hand, and Western interests, led by the United States, on the other.
The concern that Iran may acquire nuclear weapons, he says, is a red herring. Iran's nukes would be counterbalanced in Israel's arsenal. Mr. X proposes that the best, perhaps the only, way to confront Iran effectively is indirectly, inside Iraq. He is concerned that there is already far too much Iranian influence in Iraq and insists that only U.S. military force can drive it out.
To do that, he says, you will need more troops in Iraq. More, not fewer. And you will have to announce a clear no-exit policy. When I suggest to him that neither Democrats nor Republicans are likely to be able to sell that package to the American Congress and public, he shrugs, as if to say, I've given you a solution. Whether or not you can implement it is up to you.
This is Ted Koppel in Bahrain.
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