There they go again. For several years the civilian hawks now in and around the Pentagon sought to topple Saddam on the cheap, arguing that the job could be contracted out to the Iraqi opposition. Luckily for everyone but the Iraqi leader, they were overruled, and in the end the Bush administration fought the war with American and British troops instead. Rather than learn from this mistake, however, the Pentagon hawks are now trying to repeat it.
The administration’s postwar plans for Iraq are still being fought over internally, but three distinct themes appear to feature prominently: promoting democracy, limiting American involvement, and keeping the rest of the international community at arm’s length. Many observers find this troika somewhat baffling, because they see no way of achieving all three objectives simultaneously. What they fail to appreciate are the magical powers attributed by administration hawks to the Iraqi opposition, and in particular to one opposition group known as the Iraqi National Congress. Just as before, people like Pentagon adviser Richard Perle think the INC can leap easily over the obstacles others worry about and will thus be able to transform Iraq in a flash.
Unfortunately, the INC is as ill-prepared to pull off a postwar miracle as it would have been for a wartime wonder. It can boast some heroic individual members, such as the dissident intellectual Kanan Makiya, but it has negligible military power, administrative capacity, or local backing. Iraq experts joke that the group has fewer supporters on the Tigris than on the Potomac.
The challenges of governing a post-Saddam Iraq will be huge and will include maintaining security across the country, reforming or establishing a new set of national political institutions, keeping intercommunal peace, and providing basic services to a large population while restarting a rundown and complicated economy. The notion that full responsibility for such matters can be quickly handed over to the INC without courting disaster is folly—and such obvious folly that it’s likely the president will eventually step in to see that the hawks are overruled once again. George W. Bush might not care much for international institutions or the trans-Atlantic alliance, but he will care about how things go in Iraq, and sooner or later the INC’s inability to handle matters there will become obvious. The real question is how much damage will be caused before the administration turns to non-INC options. (The smoke signals from inside the White House are hard to decipher: INC head Ahmed Chalabi has just been sent into Iraq, but his star inside the administration might already be waning.)
What future, then, for the administration’s three principles? It would be a shame to see the commitment to democracy compromised. After so many years of brutal tyranny, the Iraqi people deserve to live better, freer lives, and it would indeed be wonderful—just as the hawks say—to see liberty and representative government blossom in the heart of the Arab world. So, while the easiest path to stability might be to turn control of Iraq over to some competent pro-American strongman, this would be both a tragedy and a mistake. To avoid both authoritarianism and chaos, however, the other two principles—limiting American and other foreign involvement—will have to be jettisoned.
The determination to cap America’s role is already weakening (as it should), with administration officials now talking openly about staying in Iraq more than six months. Smart money is betting on a large U.S. presence lasting far longer than that—although look for this to be spun furiously to deflect grumbling at home and abroad. As Daniel Byman, a former CIA Iraq analyst who now teaches at Georgetown, puts it in a sobering study of the subject soon to be published in the journal International Security, “Most of the barriers to democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq are related directly or indirectly to security, and the United States and other occupying powers can provide this security [only] if they are willing to deploy considerable forces to Iraq for years.”
The determination to keep out the United Nations, Europe, and the rest of the world might also eventually fall by the wayside, because it is sustained more by ideology and petulance than by logic. Precisely because the United States did not fight the war to seize control of Iraqi oil or colonize the country, it will end up wanting to share with others the unenviable burdens of getting Iraq back on its feet, and it will have to give up some autonomy in return. The Bush administration may scorn those who didn’t support the war, but it will regret not having their help and blessing for the task of reconstruction—to paraphrase Bogie, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of its life. Negotiating the details of how to bring in others without ceding too much control over Iraq’s future will be tricky, but hardly impossible—this is what the much-maligned striped-pants set over at the State Department does for a living, after all.
What the administration hawks seem not to realize yet is that toppling Saddam will not end the debate over the war’s legitimacy. For many abroad, in fact, it will only confirm the belief that American power is dangerously unchecked. This is a problem. Scaring the bad guys is one thing; scaring the entire world is another, and something only a fool would laugh off. The Bush administration is full of Churchillians. It would do well to remember what the great man himself thought should come after resolution and defiance: “In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Good Will.”