The discussion commonly turns to how the fallout from Iraq can be managed, minimizing negative regional impact.
Policymakers and strategic analysts in the Arab world have little confidence that current US troop surge in Iraq will do much more than – at best – postpone a complete political-security breakdown in Iraq, which, they fear, could then spread across the Middle East. During my lengthy recent discussions with experts in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and with some well-connected Iraqis in Jordan, I heard a lot about how Iraq's collapse has been affecting these Arab societies.
The news from my Iraqi friends – leaders in quasi-governmental and nongovernmental organizations – was grim. These were people who (on human rights grounds) had supported the US invasion in 2003, and who then worked hard to build an effective, democratic order in their country. Now, I found them downhearted – but thoughtful, as they tried to pinpoint the worst of many US mistakes in Iraq. They told piercingly tragic stories about the violence and sectarianism that affects everyone there.
I asked one of these friends what he thought would happen if US forces leave Iraq in the near future. He said there's a possibility this would concentrate the minds of his countrymen on the need to find a workable reconciliation. "But if the Americans stay, we can expect the situation to remain bad," he said. This man was visiting Jordan for only a few days. But he was planning, soon, to return for much longer. After four years of trying to build strong public-sector institutions in Iraq, he was giving up the effort and preparing to join the 2-million-plus other Iraqis who have fled their country since the war began.
The continuing social and political catastrophe in Iraq has sent shock waves throughout the other Arab states, too. In Cairo, senior analysts at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies talked about how Arabs had long viewed the Iraqi state as a bulwark against the extension of Iranian power from the east. But, now, with that bulwark largely destroyed, they saw Iran's influence extending deep into Iraq and directly threatening the stability of many other Arab states, especially in the Persian Gulf.
These analysts talked about other threats that Egyptians and other Arabs feel in the wake of Iraq's collapse, including their fear of a regional spread of disorder, militancy, and sectarianism. One particular anxiety: the threat posed by the return to their homes of militant Arab Islamists who had spent time in the lawless, Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq and there acquired many skills in extremist operations and organizing.