Reshaping the Middle East Hope - and the Big 'Ifs'


Feb 23, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle on February 23, 2003.

The hopeful case for postwar Iraq is worth considering. It turns on a number of "ifs,"beginning in particular with the war's endgame. Iraq surely will be beaten -- of that there is no doubt. But if the war ends swiftly, U.S. forces will have less need, and troops loyal to Saddam Hussein less time, to destroy infrastructure and oil fields. If the residual defenses of Baghdad collapse quickly, then the transition to postwar occupation can be equally quick. If the existing civil service is prepared to serve a post-Hussein Iraq, the task of the occupiers will be made easier, and their hand can be relatively light.

Perhaps the biggest if for Iraq itself is future leadership. What opposition to Hussein now exists is deeply divided and feckless. That is hardly a surprise given that to oppose the "Butcher of Baghdad" has been to seek a death sentence, one that has on occasion been carried out beyond the borders of Iraq. Yet Iraq could turn out to be something like Afghanistan, where not only did most of the people embrace a future beyond the dark hand of the Taliban, but despite all the continuing tribalism and warlordism, some credible new leaders did emerge.

Beyond Iraq, the administration hopes the end of Hussein will have happy spillovers for the region, and some harbor much grander hopes. If the war ends quickly with little loss of life, and if the transition to a post-Hussein future is both smooth and smoothly "Iraq-ized," Iraq can serve as an example for the region. Making it into a real democracy will be a task for decades, not months, as it is for Afghanistan. But an Iraq that is more decent, tolerant and plural would be an exception in a region that has too little of any of those qualities.

What might go wrong? The answer depends on those hopeful ifs turning in the wrong direction. Inside Iraq, if the war lasted long enough, the fighting itself -- as well as sabotage by forces loyal to Hussein's regime -- might create considerable destruction, not to mention streams of refugees with which U.S. forces would have to contend. Worse, if pockets of resistance, perhaps from loyal Republican Guard forces, succeeded in taking the fight into Baghdad's streets, the war's end would be messy, including casualties among American GIs and many more among Iraqi civilians.

Whatever the truth about Iraq's link to al Qaeda and terrorism, the onset of war is likely to bring fresh terrorist attacks. That was the burden of the latest tape attributed to Osama bin Laden, although he also did the administration the favor of seeming to link himself to Iraq's fate. Those attacks may include freelancers seeking to exact revenge for America's war on predominantly Muslim Iraq. The longer and bloodier the war, the more it will not only inflame anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world, but also encourage suicidal revenge.

Other rosy geopolitical hopes for postwar Iraq might not ensue either. The war will validate one particularly nasty lesson -- that if rogue regimes, like Iraq, want to safeguard themselves from U.S. attack, they need to get nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Already, North Korea seems to be acting on that lesson, and it is not lost on Iran and perhaps Libya as well. The number of candidate rogues is small, but Iraq and North Korea show just how much trouble a single small and failed state can cause.

Postwar Iraq might come apart, as Kurds in the north carve out their own state, or Turkey intervenes to make sure that they do not. If Iraq stays together, it might be a demonstration of success, but it also might become a rallying point for anti-Americanism and a goad for Iran, Saudi Arabia and others in the region to make a common front against the U.S. presence.

Enthusiasts in the administration conjure a new era for the region that would be ushered in by Hussein's end. Those hopes seem too grand, but the prospect of war already has pushed the Saudi regime to think heretical thoughts about its own future. For the Saudi monarchy, part of that heresy may be expelling the U.S. military presence, but another part is creating structures to pay attention to the needs and wishes of the Saudi people.

While projections of nasty spillovers from an Iraq conflict need to be treated with the same suspicion as politicians' hopes for happy ones, neither hopes nor tantrums are a basis for successful policy. Much of the job of winning the war will occur after hostilities cease.

Gregory F. Treverton is a senior analyst at RAND. He was vice chair of the National Intelligence Council in the first Clinton administration.

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