MM Lee: US should stay course in Iraq

Premature exit will embolden extremists to threaten US and its allies everywhere.

THE United States should stay the course in Iraq. Otherwise, there could be dangerous consequences for the US, the Middle East and the rest of the world.

This was Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s message to Americans, many of whom, according to recent polls, were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the war in Iraq that is now into its third bloody year. He warned that if the US left Iraq prematurely, Muslim extremists worldwide would be emboldened to take the battle to America and her allies. “Having defeated the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Iraq, they will believe that they can change the world,” he said.

It would be even worse if Iraq breaks up in civil war, he added. This would destabilise the Middle East and draw in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.

Comparing the current US involvement in Iraq with that of Vietnam in the 1970s, MM Lee said that Washington should remain resolute in creating a stable Iraq that could transform the rest of the Middle East for the better.

The Vietnam War, in the same way, brought “collateral benefits” for Asia. “The conventional wisdom in the media now is that the war in Iraq is an unmitigated disaster,” MM Lee said. “Conventional wisdom in the 1970s assumed that the war in Vietnam was similarly an unmitigated disaster. It has been proven wrong.”

The Vietnam War “bought the time and created the conditions that enabled non-communist East Asia to follow Japan’s path and develop into the four dragons, followed by the four tigers”.

The four dragons referred to South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore while the tigers are Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. These countries in turn changed both communist China and Vietnam into open market economies and made them freer societies.

“If the unexpected developments of war in Iraq are addressed in a resolute, not a defeatist, manner, conventional wisdom, now pessimistic, will again be proved wrong.” He said that the Singapore Government supported the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, depose Saddam Hussein and remove the weapons of mass destruction that all intelligence agencies in the US and Europe believed that Iraq had.

As a show of support, Singapore had helped to train Iraqi policemen and deployed a Landing Ship Tank to the Gulf thrice, each time with about 170 personnel. Singapore also offered a C-130 detachment, and three separate KC-135 detachments for air-to-air refuelling missions.

But MM Lee became “nervous” when the US disbanded the Iraqi army and police, and sacked all Baathists in the Iraqi administration. “I feared this would create a vacuum,” he said.

He recalled how, when the Japanese captured Singapore in February 1942 and took 90,000 British, Indian and Australian troops as prisoners of war, they left the police and civil administration intact and functioning under their military officers. If they had not done so, there would have been chaos, he said. In Iraq’s case, many former military and Baathist elements had emerged as insurgents. Other Sunnis from the region joined them, including Jordanian Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi who was killed in a US air strike. At the same time, the US did not realise the depth of the fault lines in Iraqi society – tribal, ethnic, religious – that divided Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Shi’ites, and within each group, their sub loyalties to tribal and religious leaders.

But, just as the US overcame mistakes and setbacks in Vietnam, it could do so in Iraq.

He said: “I want to encourage the Americans to take a positive and optimistic stand on this matter. A stabilised Iraq, less repressive, with its different ethnic and religious communities accepting each other in some devolved framework, can be a liberating influence in the Middle East.”

The US was not in “imperial overreach”, as some believed it to be.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom of the 1970s, Americans overcame the setbacks of the war in Vietnam, checkmated Soviet expansion and became the indispensable superpower. Americans can overcome the unexpected developments in Iraq,” he said.

“You will not fail if you persist.”

WHY THE MIDDLE EAST

“Whoever wins the next US elections in 2008 will face a very different world. By then, you will not have just Iraq but also Iran to contend with. It will not be an easy world to live in. It will be as seminal an event as the collapse of the Soviet Union, because if there is a change in the power balance in the Gulf, and with oil at stake, the future of the world will take a different course.”

MM LEE, explaining why he chose to speak about the Middle East. He said strategic uncertainty in the region could affect the whole world. Besides Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict remained unresolved and there was the danger of Iran arming itself with nuclear weapons.

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