Liberation Theology

The war in Iraq is concluding its second week and the multiplication of Monday-morning quarterbacks evaluating the American war plan is continuing almost without restraint.

The war in Iraq is concluding its second week and the multiplication of Monday-morning quarterbacks evaluating the American war plan is continuing almost without restraint.  While these kinds of questions are always appropriate in a democracy, few seem to share our view that, not unlike Otto von Bismarck's comparison of politics to sausage-making, war should be judged by its outcome rather than its process. 

Nevertheless, there are in a sense two wars underway; one is a narrow effort to dislodge Saddam, the other is a broader campaign to democratize Iraq and eventually the rest of the region.  The United States is certain to prevail in the first war, though the timing and cost of its victory are unknowable.  The outcome of the second war-which will necessarily last much longer--is considerably harder to predict. 

Ironically, wall-to-wall media coverage--including reporting from embedded journalists, analysis from retired generals, satellite and night-vision images of Baghdad, and daily updates of Iraq's weather--creates the illusion that we have more information about the war to unseat Saddam than we actually do.  Despite this deluge, we do not have much of the information we really need to evaluate a war plan aimed not at conquest but at regime change.  That information (human emotions, calculations and intentions) is locked away inside the heads of Saddam Hussein, his entourage, his generals and his people.  It is psychology, not tactics or logistics, and will probably become known only when it is no longer news. 

Still, much of what we do know can help in evaluating the prospects of the second war, the war to democratize the Middle East.  It is clear, for example, that what Zbigniew Brzezinski described last week in his interview with In the National Interest as "more evident demonstrations that the Iraqi people are welcoming their 'liberation‚'" are still lacking.  (See the text at  Prominent neo-conservatives like William Kristol have suggested repeatedly for years we would receive a friendly reception from the Iraqi people; for example, Kristol testified in February 2002 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "As in Kabul but also as in the Kurdish and Shi'ite regions of Iraq in 1991, American and alliance forces will be welcomed in Baghdad as liberators."  (He bravely went on to say that "Indeed, reconstructing Iraq may prove to be a less difficult task than the challenge of building a viable state in Afghanistan"--a statement that remains to be tested.)  

Though Baghdad has not yet been taken, none of these predictions have been borne out in other Iraqi cities, even in the predominantly Shi'ite south, which many assumed would not only enthusiastically greet U.S. forces but turn decisively against Saddam Hussein's regime.  There have been no mass surrenders; no widespread popular uprisings; and resistance has intensified in some areas.  Many Iraqis probably do desire an end to Saddam's tyranny, that is true, but the brunt of the fighting to remove him from power is going to be done by coalition forces, not by Iraqis.   

Where reports of uprisings have emerged--as in the case of Basra--it is difficult to assess not only the scale, but also the ultimate impact of what is happening.  Apparently brutal efforts to suppress resistance are likely to heighten resentment of Iraq's regime, but may or may not translate into warm feelings for America.  As Ray Takeyh, Director of Studies at the National Defense University's Near East and South Asia Center has said, "The average Arab can hold a deep disdain for Saddam and yet remain thoroughly disenchanted with the Western power that displaced his tyranny."  More narrowly, some of those Iraqis seeking to fight Saddam Hussein's forces inside Basra may wonder why, after two weeks, they have not received more help from coalition forces justifiably leery of risking casualties (to themselves and to the local population) by entering the city decisively.  Notwithstanding the good intentions of coalition commanders, those who rose up against Baghdad, with American encouragement, after the first Gulf War, might be only further alienated if they believe that they have been left alone to fight loyalist forces.  

At a broader level, the neo-conservatives' effort to create a sense of inevitability around Saddam's demise to encourage quick surrender has a considerably less attractive mirror-image, which seems to have become Baghdad's strategy.  The mere fact that the military campaign will be measured in weeks or months rather than days creates substantially more opportunities for war's deadly roulette wheel to generate terrible accidents, such as the casualties in Baghdad's markets (though the cause of these incidents remains to be seen), or this week's civilian deaths at American checkpoints, which fuel resentment of the United States.  Taken together with manifest efforts by the Iraqi regime to make such incidents more rather than less frequent, this has the potential to create a self-reinforcing cycle of anger toward America that slows the war and, as the clock ticks on, generates new tragedies.