This piece ran originally in our Nov. 22 issue. As we go to press, President George W. Bush seems ready to get his wish: a full-scale war in Iraq led by U.S. forces. But the question Anthony Pignataro raised late last year isn't likely to be answered for years. —eds.
Giddy over his party's historic midterm election victories in Congress, President George W. Bush says we must invade Iraq now—immediately—and get rid of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Even last-minute Iraqi concessions to U.N. weapons inspections seem a mere pause before an inevitable U.S. invasion. According to the Center for Defense Information, which tracks military deployments to the Gulf, that invasion could come within six months.
Few people are betting against a U.S. victory in which Saddam is killed, arrested or merely chased out of Iraq. But after that?
According to the Oct. 6 Washington Post, the Bush administration feels even the mere threat of a U.S. invasion would produce a coup. The theory is that Iraq would basically become another Pakistan, ruled by a military strongman who does what he's told.
Such a coup, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation, would make a post-war U.S. military occupation relatively easy. The main job: "confronting any remnant elements of Saddam's deposed regime and deterring other regional powers from exploiting the situation for purposes injurious to the interests of the United States and its allies," wrote Heritage thinkers Baker Spring and Jack Spencer on Sept. 18. "At the outset, this task may require up to 30,000 U.S. military personnel."
On Oct. 11, The New York Times, relying on unnamed Bush administration sources, outlined plans to install an American military governor in Baghdad following the removal of Saddam. That government, headed perhaps by General Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, would train Iraqi society in the rudiments of democracy—something like the postwar occupation of Japan. Such a transition "could take months or years."
The main problem with Bush's coup dream and its promise of democratization is that Iraq without Saddam Hussein will be chaos.
Bush acknowledged—and dismissed—this possibility in his Oct. 7 Cincinnati war speech. "Some worry that a change of leadership in Iraq could create instability and make the situation worse," said Bush. "The situation could hardly get worse for world security and for the people of Iraq. The lives of Iraqi citizens would improve dramatically if Saddam Hussein were no longer in power, just as the lives of Afghanistan's citizens improved after the Taliban."
The reference to Afghanistan is the perfect evidence that Bush is wrong. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces and al-Qaida remnants are mired in a counterinsurgency war that may last years.
Then there's the problem of democracy. Saddam's decades in power have destroyed Iraqi civil society. There is simply no experience in democratic self-governance, little national identity, nothing holding the country's disparate religious and ethnic groups together but Saddam's terror. Like communist Yugoslavia—where ethnic blood feuding was checked only by maximum leader Josip Broz Tito—Iraq, and so the Mideast, may turn to shrapnel in Saddam's absence.
"If Saddam fell suddenly from power, Iraq's tribal confederations, religious communities and ethnic groups would gain greater autonomy," wrote Daniel Byman of the Rand Corporation in his article "Confronting Iraq: U.S. Policy and the Use of Force Since the Gulf War" (2000). "There is little love among these groups. Iraqi national identity is weak in comparison to religious or tribal identity, and the collapse of the center could lead to complete disintegration. Moreover, Saddam Hussein has devastated Iraqi civil society, destroying any independent organization and rending ties among citizens."
Byman isn't alone in predicting that Saddam's absolute rule is the only thread holding Iraqi society together. On Oct. 4, the British Jane's Defence Weekly, one of the world's most reliable military-affairs journals, reported, "The simmering divisions of Iraq's splintered Sunni, Shi'a and Kurd tribal society may well explode once Saddam is overthrown or killed by the Americans and its [sic] allies." Jane's then quoted Rend Rahim Francke, director of the Iraqi Foundation, on what such a situation would look like.
"The system of law and order will break down, endangering public safety and putting people at risk of personal reprisals," said Francke. "There will be no police force, no justice system, no civil service and no accountability. In this confusion, people will take justice into their own hands."
Among Bush's fiercest skeptics are U.S. military officers, and among these, the most prominent may be retired Marine General Anthony Zinni,Secretary of State Colin Powell's unpaid Middle East adviser. Zinni's credentials on Iraq are impeccable: he was chief of U.S. Central Command as well as commander of 1992's Operation Provide Comfort, the massive airlift of supplies to the embattled Kurds in Northern Iraq.
Zinni is an unqualified opponent of U.S. meddling in Baghdad affairs. In a little-known speech at the Economic Club in Miami, Florida, on Aug. 23, Zinni spoke of the civil war that would spring out of any U.S. action in Iraq—forcing the U.S. to deal with a dozen, two dozen, even 90 or so groups—as well as the chaos that would plague the Middle East.
"Attacking Iraq now will cause a lot of problems," said Zinni. "Our relationships in the region are in major disrepair, not to the point where we can't fix them, but we need to quit making enemies we don't need to make enemies out of. And we need to fix those relationships. There's a deep chasm growing between that part of the world and our part of the world."
Clearly, many of the monarchies and dictatorships surrounding Iraq are already in perilous condition. Revolution and anarchy in Iraq will feed already-powerful internal opposition groups in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt. Turkey, terrified of a nationalist alliance between Turkish and Iraqi Kurds, could move in.
"[S]uch a war would render the Middle East more repressive and unstable than it is today," said Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institute senior fellow, in an Oct. 7 op-ed piece. "Democracy cannot be imposed through military force, even if force is used successfully to oust antidemocratic dictators. . . . [M]ost Arabs and Muslims will see in the war American imperialism."
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In his Oct. 2 testimony before Congress, Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon said Iraqi postwar chaos would swallow vast numbers of U.S. troops. "A large stability mission led by the United States would be needed, with the overall force most likely requiring up to 100,000 personnel, if not twice that number, at least at first," he said. "This would not be a short-term commitment."
O'Hanlon's figures far outstrip the optimistic Heritage Foundation prediction and actually approach Vietnam commitments made back in the mid-1960s. That's a scenario that worries even former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
"I am viscerally opposed to a prolonged occupation of a Muslim country at the heart of the Muslim world by Western nations who proclaim the right to re-educate that country," said Kissinger in response to the Oct. 11 New York Times story on U.S. military occupation plans.
When the butcher of the Nixon and Ford administrations—the man who orchestrated the secret bombing of Cambodia and gave the nod to the 1973 Chilean coup and the 1975 Indonesian massacre of East Timorese—counsels peace, it's worth listening.