The first big question about Iraq has been answered: President Bush had enough determination to remove Saddam Hussein.
Since the Arab states would never provide essential cooperation if Iraq had defied the U.S. with impunity, the fight against international terrorism would have been hopeless if Saddam had remained in power. Now the road to success is open, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.
The political fallout from the conflict over the decision to attack will continue to have profound effects for good and ill. More important, what happens in Iraq in the next year or so could either have a major beneficial effect on the region or turn into a disaster for the U.S., greatly reducing its ability to fight terrorism.
In April the question was, what will Bush do next? But that debate was overtaken by the realization that the terror-supporting states were not waiting to see whether Bush would come after them. They were taking the offensive, and choosing to battle the U.S. in Iraq, which they consider America’s most vulnerable point.
The recognized conflict in Iraq now is between the U.S. and mainstream Iraqi political leaders who, although sympathetic, believe that Ambassador Bremer is trying to run Iraq without paying sufficient attention to Iraqis. If this were the only problem, the president could rest easy.
The dangerous conflict in Iraq is between the U.S., which is trying to create an independent, united, peaceful country, and enemies of the U.S. who are trying to prevent it from succeeding. To a large extent it is a struggle to affect the behavior of Iraqis, because the future of Iraq depends on its citizens.
Major enemies of the U.S. — primarily Iran, Syria, and various organizational expressions of militant Islam, most of which are dependent on Saudi money — have chosen to protect themselves by going on the offensive, joining forces with the underground Saddam and Baathist remnants. Unless the U.S. defeats these enemies in the field, or forces them to withdraw, its victory in Iraq will turn into a defeat, even though Saddam was toppled. If the U.S. has to rule Iraq for more than a year or two, and a large share of Iraqis come to see it as an occupier who should be fought, there is likely to be extensive terrorism against the Americans, and against Iraqi “collaborators.” If such a war of attrition takes hold, the U.S. position could become untenable.
The U.S. can only win such a conflict if the great majority of the local population and its political representatives publicly and privately support it against the terrorists — and if a large part of world political opinion recognizes this Iraqi support, despite the widespread desire to embarrass the U.S. If the U.S. gets such support, either the terrorism will stop, or it can be held to a low enough level so that America can sustain the casualties.
Without such Iraqi support, the U.S. would be taking more casualties and forced to use harsh unphotogenic defense measures. These would make it widely unpopular, perceived as weak, with its moral basis undermined, and without visible prospects for improvement. It would be weakened if it stayed and weakened if it pulled out in defeat (or forced to pay a high price for cooperation in a thin, multilateral disguise for such a defeat.)
But such a defeat is a danger, not a probability. In many ways, Iraqi politics have gotten off to a fairly good start. Already some 65 newspapers are circulating in Baghdad. I watched hundreds of Iraqi grassroots leaders — some in sheik’s robes, others with shirt and tie — coming to Baghdad’s Hunting Club for audiences with Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC). They were participating in the old Arab way by talking about what concerned them most and hearing about the INC’s vision of Iraq’s future for themselves and the families and clans they represent. Some 5,000 such leaders have come to the INC so far, and in the main they have been responding positively.
The problem is time. Will the outside enemies organize too much violent resistance before an accepted Iraqi political structure has arrived at a modus vivendi with the occupation authority? If so, mainstream Iraqi opinion and leaders will have a dilemma. On the one hand, it will be clear that it is in Iraq’s interest for the U.S. to defeat the attacks against the occupation; they don’t want either continued division of the country or Iranian domination. On the other hand, if they have all been calling on the U.S. to give more representation to Iraqis, anyone who yields to the proposed occupation arrangements will risk being branded as a puppet. While the attacks on the U.S. increase the pressure for all to accept the U.S. proposal, at the same time it will put pressure on the U.S. to consider Iraqi ideas about how to work together.
If enough Iraqi leaders can get together, it should be possible to have a successful negotiation with the U.S., but despite the need for unity against the danger of the attacks on the occupation, either or both sides could be too stubborn.
The U.S. is already trying to end foreign interference in Iraq. However, while all the governments involved are wary of U.S. power, much of what threatens the reconstruction process has such a small footprint, and is so deniable, that it is doubtful that deterrence will work.
The most important enemy is Iran, and events there may now be heading toward a climax, regardless of U.S. policy. There are signs that the recent demonstrations in Teheran and other cities shook the regime, which is now trying to prevent the strike and demonstrations scheduled for July 9. This increases the stakes, and makes it easier to focus opposition on that date.
If Iranian subversion continues to threaten the U.S. in Iraq, President Bush is likely to try to relieve the pressure by encouraging Iranians who want to free their country from the oppression of the mullahs. Such a policy would not require anything like the public debate needed for military action. This is an example of something the president might have done on his own schedule, but may now feel pressed to do as a defensive measure. The same is true for political action to threaten the weak Syrian regime.
There will be resistance in Washington to the idea that it is too dangerous to allow the Saudis to continue interfering in Iraq. But there is a growing realization of the degree to which Saudi money is responsible for the threat from militant Islam, so it is possible that the situation in Iraq will be the last straw, and that it will persuade the U.S. to drastically reduce its tolerance for Saudi abuse of the relationship.
In brief, while it isn’t clear whether the Bush administration would have used Saddam’s removal as the first step toward political or regime change in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, these countries’ efforts to produce an American failure in Iraq may force America to go in this direction. Appeasement is not an attractive alternative when U.S. troops and American credibility are in immediate danger.
Bush is driven by the need to fight terrorism, but he is finding that encouraging movement toward democracy — which is his inclination — may be a critical result of the struggle against the supporters of terrorism.
— Max Singer is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies of Bar-Ilan University.