While the world waits to see whether Saddam Hussein will comply with U.N. demands, there is no doubt that President Bush will succeed—either through successful inspections or through war—in guaranteeing that Iraq will be cleansed of weapons of mass destruction and the means of making them. But the post-crisis course of U.S. policy in the Middle East is far from clear, and with it major elements of global politics for years to come.
During the past several months, President Bush has mobilized sufficient opinion—both at home and abroad—to support the use of military power, thereby forestalling the emergence of a major threat to security. Thus, at least in this one instance, the newly proclaimed U.S. doctrine of pre-emption has been validated: Iraq will be disarmed, to almost universal satisfaction.
Neither friend nor foe can remain uncertain about U.S. willingness to apply power in circumstances and on terms that America deems necessary. Major lessons will be drawn from this fact, by states and by non-state actors alike.
But Bush's forging of a broad international political coalition, implicitly if not formally sanctioning war if need be to disarm Iraq, also bears hard upon the United States. America is now responsible, not just for choosing the means to achieve this goal, but also for dealing decisively with the aftermath.
This most important political-military venture since the last gasp of the Cold War has already sealed America's fate as permanent power in the Middle East. It is also confirming the requirements of U.S. leadership on a much broader canvass and far beyond military power as an instrument of influence.
Post-Iraq stability in the Middle East, along with U.S. responsibility for promoting it, has several irreducible components. They include nation-building, as in Afghanistan; preserving Iraq's territorial integrity as a state; nurturing Iran's re-emergence into the community of nations; fostering a predictable oil regime; forestalling the emergence of other threats in the region; acting decisively to end the Arab-Israeli conflict; and continuing to prosecute the war on terror.
This last requirement is the most demanding and is most closely related to the central focus of America's post-Sept. 11 agenda. Defeating terrorism requires striking at its base of support as well as at its perpetrators—to "drain the swamp" that terrorists rely upon to operate.
In the Middle East, this imposes two demands above all others. First, a long-term commitment that this region will no longer be uniquely isolated from the impulse to democracy and development. Second, near-term resolve to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, not sometime tomorrow but beginning today—especially to foster peace and security between Israel and Palestine. In the politics of peace and war, the Middle East is one interconnected region. The United States cannot pick and choose where to be involved, in either time or place.
It is also clear that the United States will not by itself undertake the burden of sorting out the Middle East over a generation or more. American political will and sufficient financial commitment do not exist and are unlikely to develop. If there is war with Iraq, the political if not military support of allies will be important. In shaping the Middle East's future, the direct engagement of allies is indispensable.
Allies will not simply appear at America's bidding. Their money and manpower will be forthcoming only if they share in setting priorities and making decisions as well as in putting them into practice. Already, it is clear that few if any U.S. allies, in Europe or Asia, will help pay the bill for war—as Japan and Germany did a decade ago. But many allies will help pay the bill for peace, if their views of what that peace means are also taken into account.
For the United States, therefore, the debate between unilateral action and multilateral cooperation is sterile. The United States has no choice but to see through to the end the long-term engagement in the Middle East that its words and deeds have already confirmed.
The United States also has no choice but to look to allies for help with money, ideas, political commitment, and presence on the ground—all the elements of power, purpose, and cooperation that brought us successfully through the last half-century. The requirements are new, but the practices demanded are not all that different.
Robert Hunter is an adviser to the RAND Corp. He served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.
This commentary originally appeared in Albany (NY) Times-Union on December 16, 2002. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.