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by Dr. Michael Donovan; Center for Defense Information

8:00 a.m. January 15, 2003 PDT

The following article is from CDI's Terrorism Project. For additional information, please visit the Center for Defense Information, a non-partisan, non-profit organization committed to independent research on the social, economic, environmental, political and military components of global security. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the e11th hour editorial staff.
Producing a stable, post-war Iraq may well prove more challenging than eliminating the regime. Such an endeavor will require a long-term and large-scale U.S. commitment. Neverless, rehabilitating Iraq as a responsible member of the international community should remain the paramount goal of any operation to unseat Saddam Hussein.

aerial view, BaghdadTHE STRATEGIC PAYOFF from a successful invasion of Iraq is compelling and easily seen. The attendant risks are, however, less easily measured. Much would depend on the commitment of the U.S. administration to rebuild Iraq physically and reconstruct the Iraqi body politic, essentially from scratch.

Thus far, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has approached "nation building" with great reluctance, preferring instead to reduce the U.S. profile in places like Afghanistan and the Balkans as quickly as possible. Producing a stable, post-war Iraq may well prove more challenging than eliminating the regime. Such an endeavor will require a long-term and large-scale U.S. commitment.

Nevertheless, rehabilitating Iraq as a responsible member of the international community should remain the paramount goal of any operation to unseat Saddam Hussein. To do this, the United States and its allies would have to accomplish four broad tasks. Occupation forces would have to secure Iraq and guarantee the country's territorial integrity. The Iraqi military would have to be disarmed and a new army created in its place. The Iraqi economy would have to be resuscitated. Finally, the new political system would have to be developed and institutionalized. All of these tasks will prove challenging. But of the four, the job of political reconstruction looms as the most difficult.

The Bush administration has consistently argued that a democratic Iraq would be a powerful example upon which to base political progress in the rest of the region. The problem is that Washington has continually reified the idea of Iraqi democracy without providing any concrete ideas about the mechanisms by which this might be accomplished. Some analysts regard as fanciful the belief that Washington can simply install a government in Baghdad that is friendly, pluralistic and pro-Western. There is no meaningful democratic tradition in Iraq, and the simple and quick imposition of a democracy from the top down is unlikely to succeed. Moreover, Washington will have to confront a central tension: A government that is sympathetic to American interests will not necessarily reflect the interests and desires of the Iraqi people. Conversely, a government that is representative of the Iraqi people may not pursue policies that are attractive to Washington.

Likewise, critics suggest that an American invasion would do little to inspire democratic change elsewhere in the Middle East. [1] In the near term, it is likely that an invasion would retard political openness throughout the region as governments respond to the dissatisfaction of their citizenry with increased repression. [2] Autocratic regimes that did not support the U.S. action could find their position strengthened by a rise in Arab nationalism propelled by anti-Americanism. Regimes that did support the invasion may be rewarded by an exemption from political liberalization. [3] In many of these states criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian cause remain the only sanctioned outlets for popular angst. Thus, an invasion could indirectly fuel the Arab-Israeli conflict, which would in turn lead to an increasingly heavy-handed Israeli approach to security issues in the occupied territories. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to imagine how democratic change might flourish.

Advocates of regime change nevertheless insist that an end game should include Iraqi democracy, even if it does not necessarily correspond to western forms. Though the possibility seems remote, there are some reasons to be encouraged. Iraq's population has all the makings of a modern middle class. They are relatively well educated, urbanized, and have a long secular tradition. By the standards of the region, there may be few better candidates for democracy, even if it is imposed from the outside. Building democratic institutions in Iraq would, as one scholar argues, place American power for the first time on the side of political reform rather than political reaction and the autocratic status quo in the region. [4]

But the task of political reconstruction in the wake of Saddam's downfall will be daunting. Internal feuding and competition mark the opposition-in-exile, and few of its constituent groups command any significant influence inside Iraq. Years of totalitarian abuse have decimated Iraqi civil society, and the Ba'ath party has long since destroyed any independent institutions that might have guided a peaceful transition to a more democratic form of government. [5] This ensures that political reconstruction will have to be accomplished from the ground up. Violence has traditionally played a prominent role in Iraqi political culture, and competition among rival groups for influence in the new government could be fierce. The Kurds, the Shi'a, and the Sunni elite will all likely view the creation of a new system as a zero-sum game and be inclined to see the recognition of the interests of others as a diminution of their own. Additionally, the tribal rivalries encouraged by Saddam over the years are unlikely to disappear, and the settling of old scores and jealousies will probably accompany any opening of the political system.

Establishing the broad outlines of a successor government prior to an invasion might mitigate some of these problems. The absence of meaningful leadership outside Iraq and Saddam's almost total repression of opposition inside the country makes the specifics of a successor regime difficult to anticipate. Those personalities and groups that rise to the fore will probably bare little resemblance to the opposition groups currently arrayed against the regime. However, Washington should work with the opposition to shape a vision of a post Saddam Iraq that extends beyond finding the next "Iraqi general with a following." A demonstrated commitment by Washington to the future of an Iraq where the interests and rights of all the major groups are recognized and the country's territorial integrity is guaranteed would be a powerful inducement for the Iraqi people. [6] It would also be an important first step toward enlisting the close cooperation of Iraq's neighbors.

Indeed, the absence of such cooperation would serve to reinforce many of the aforementioned problems. The threat that Iraq might break apart in the aftermath of political upheaval has probably been overstated. [7] But Iraq's neighbors will be tempted to interfere on behalf of those groups and factions they identify with in an effort to protect their interests and check the ambitions of rival powers. A weak sense of nationhood will exacerbate the situation, and the temptation for various factions to seek sponsorship, if only to act as a "spoiler," would be great. Under such circumstances, the United States could be drawn into proxy conflicts that could threaten efforts at reconstruction. [8]

In any case, the United States will have to commit itself to the kind of complex peacekeeping and stability missions that the American military has traditionally been reluctant to undertake. In addition to peacekeeping, troops would probably be required to police major cities, the Iranian boarder, and oil fields and instillations. One estimate suggests that a force of 75,000 would be required initially to stabilize the country, with 5,000 troops remaining in Iraq for the next five years. [9]

In fact, these numbers could be low. At least on analyst has judged that such a commitment could impact the U.S. military's workload in such a way as to necessitate a temporary increase in end strength. [10] An occupation force will have to disarm the Iraqi military, police the country's boarders, oil fields and instillations, and maintain order in the cities.

A prolonged American military occupation of an Arab state in the heart of the Middle East is fraught with risks. The indefinite presence of American troops on Arab soil will undoubtedly inflame the passions of Arab/Muslim populations already at odds with the United States. After all, the benign presence of 5,000 U.S. troops on Saudi soil was one of Osama bin Laden's primary grievances. The connotations for the stability of regional allies could be serious. Burden sharing by Arab or Turkish partners might help to legitimize the occupation, but it might also invite meddling. [11]

As in Afghanistan, a new Iraqi security force will have to be trained, but this must be accomplished with extreme care. Any new army that is based on the existing foundations of the Iraqi state will necessarily favor the tribal elite that comprises the nucleus of Saddam's police state. [12] While it is probably not a realistic option to exclude all of these personalities entirely, their participation must be selective. Whoever controls the military will have an advantage in the competition for the resources of state that will undoubtedly arise. All of these individuals have been influenced by the same authoritarian mentality as Saddam, and many subscribe to a similarly virulent strain of Iraqi nationalism. Though Iraq's neighbors other than Iran would likely favor continued Sunni domination of the military, an Iraqi army that falls back on the old affiliations and patronage of the "Tikriti mafia" is an eventuality that must be closely guarded against. The mechanism by which effective civilian control of the military is established will likely have to include close U.S. supervision for the indefinite future.

While the United States will have to commit troops to an occupation/peacekeeping force in Iraq, the country should be administered internationally. It appears that Washington has wisely abandoned plans to install a U.S. military governorship in the style of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's administration of Japan. [13] Military rule, even in the interim, would only reinforce what will already be a prevalent perception among Arabs and Muslims that regime change is meant only to inaugurate a new age of American imperialism in the Middle East. The international administration of Iraq would mitigate this perception and help to legitimize both the occupation and reconstruction efforts. The United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations have the requisite experience to oversee and coordinate the reconstruction of Iraq. What they will require beyond that is an unwavering financial and manpower commitment from the United States for years to come.

None of the above is meant to insinuate that an invasion of Iraq is necessary or inevitable. But the challenges that would follow regime change in Iraq are numerous and formidable. Should the advocates of regime change eventually get their way, they will find that overthrowing Saddam is an easier task than building a democracy in Iraq. It is an endeavor that will be, by necessity, arduous, costly, and long-term.

[1] See Marina Ottaway, Thomas Carothers, Amy Hawthorne, Daniel Brumberg, Democratic Change in the Middle East, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Policy Brief, October 20, 2002.

[2] Shibley Telhami, A Hidden Cost Of War On Iraq, New York Times, October 7, 2002.

[3] Democratic Change in the Middle East, p. 2.

[4] See Fouad Ajami, Iraq and the Arabs' Future, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2003.

[5] James W. Moore, Apres Saddam, Le Déluge? Speculating On Post-Saddam Iraq, Middle East Policy, Volume VI, Number 3, February, 1999, p. 33.

[6] Roger D. Carstens, An End Game For Iraq, Washington Times July 11, 2002, p. 21.

[7] Mark Strauss, Attacking Iraq, Foreign Policy, March/April, 2002, p. 15.

[8] Iraq after Saddam: The Quagmire of Political Reconstruction, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Strategic Comments, Volume 8, Issue 4, May 2002.

[9] James Dao, Experts Put Large Price Tag on Rebuilding Iraq, New York Times, August 2, 2002.

[10] Mike O'Hanlon, U.S. Policy Towards Iraq, Hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Washington, D.C., October 2, 2002. O'Hanlon speculates that, over time, the United States may have to increase end strength from 1.4 million to 1.5 million in order to maintain commitments including an occupation of Iraq.

[11] Philip H. Gordon, Martin Indyk, and Michael O'Hanlon, Getting Serious About Iraq, Survival, Volume 44, No. 3, Autumn 2002, p. 20. The authors suggest that the Iraqi population may be more inclined to accept the presence of U.S. peacekeepers than those with vested interests from neighboring countries.

[12] Iraq after Saddam: The Quagmire of Political Reconstruction, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Strategic Comments, Volume 8, Issue 4, May 2002.

[13] Robin Wright and Doyle McManus, Military Rule Not Likely In Postwar Iraq, Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2002, p. 1.


For additional information, contact:
Center for Defense Information
1779 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20036-2109
Ph: (202) 332-0600 · Fax: (202) 462-4559
Dr. Michael Donovan is a research analyst for the Center for Defense Information.

Article copyright © Dr. Michael Donovan; Center for Defense Information; all rights reserved
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