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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Islamists Gain Clout on U.S. Failures

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- With a certain satisfaction, Lebanese journalist Michael Young watched a local station broadcast images seen across the world on April 9, 2003: the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdaus Square, its reverberations rumbling across a stunned Middle East. Out of curiosity, he switched to a satellite station from Syria. It was showing a documentary on a venerable Damascene mosque. He flipped to another channel, where a former Egyptian general was dismissing the idea that day that the Iraqi capital had even fallen.

"If they were scared of what was happening in Baghdad, there was more power in this moment than might have been expected. The regimes were truly scared of this moment, truly scared," recalled Young, the opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut.

"The problem is," he added, "the Americans failed."

The coterie of Arabs who supported the U.S.-led invasion was never the target of expensive U.S. propaganda efforts. Their unpopular stands in the Arab world earned them inboxes full of angry e-mails and even death threats. And nearly four years after the invasion they backed, their sense of frustration, resentment and even betrayal speaks volumes about how withered U.S. standing is in the Middle East today and how far the region itself has deteriorated, riven as it is by escalating conflicts, worsening sectarian tension and a simmering struggle with an ascendant Iran.

"It's a success story for al-Qaida; a success story for autocratic Arab regimes that made democracy look ugly in their people's eyes. They can say to their people: 'Look at the democracy that the Americans want to bring to you. Democracy is trouble. You may as well forget about what the Americans promise you. They promise you death,'" said Salameh Nematt, an analyst and the former Washington bureau chief for the Arabic-language daily al-Hayat.

Magdi Khalil, an Egyptian writer and proponent of the invasion, added: "Everything, everything is very gloomy."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long festered, cultivating indelible resentment toward the United States, Israel's strategic ally. Now it is joined by growing crises and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Somalia. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is moving to arm perceived allies: Nearly $100 million is proposed for Palestinian security forces pitted against Hamas and potentially millions more for the Lebanese army, seen as a bulwark against the ambitions of Hezbollah.

From the Persian Gulf to Egypt, the arc of the administration's avowed aim of promoting democracy in a region still largely run by autocrats and monarchs has come full circle. In the latest sign of shifting priorities, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice eschewed public criticism of Egypt's authoritarian government during a visit last week, declaring it instead part of "an important strategic relationship, one that we value greatly." Some critics see a reversion to past U.S. policy, forging an alliance of what Washington considers mainstream, albeit autocratic, states against Iran, Syria and groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Implicit, critics say, is the prospect of greater confrontation in a region already racked by it. "What's coming is worse than what is now," columnist and editor Ghassan Tueni wrote in Beirut's an-Nahar newspaper.

The landscape of the Middle East today is vastly different than it was in 2003. Governments in countries such as Egypt and Syria felt insecure then, buffeted by budding reform and protest movements or international pressure. These days they appear emboldened. Iran is developing a more assertive foreign policy in the region, from Lebanon and the Palestinian territories to the Gulf.

Proponents of the invasion often point to those governments, more than the mistakes of the United States, as the culprits in Iraq's unraveling. They had the most to lose if Bush's vision, however impractical or overly optimistic, led to more accountability in the region.

"The reason Iraq failed is partly because of American miscalculations, but partly also because everyone in the region wanted them to fail," Nematt said. "Everyone took an active role in undermining the democracy project in Iraq."

At a cafe in Beirut, Young talked about a region where "the sectarian genie has been let out of the bottle." U.S. policy, he said, reminded him of past decades: engaging despots for the sake of stability. He hinted at a sense of bitter frustration, even betrayal, in his views.

"The American agenda has completely changed," Young said. "What Iraq was set out to be has been supplanted by a completely different agenda: containing Iran and containing Iran's allies."

"The democracy debate has ended today," he added, "and I regret that."