Occupational Hazards

Speaking in Detroit on April 28th, President Bush declared:  " America has no intention of imposing our form of government or our culture.

Speaking in Detroit on April 28th, President Bush declared:  " America has no intention of imposing our form of government or our culture. Yet, we will ensure that all Iraqis have a voice in the new government and all citizens have their rights protected."

The President's Wilsonian rhetoric must be tempered with realism.  Let us not forget the grand oratory that accompanied the 1999 campaign against Yugoslavia , about creating a multi-ethnic, stable, and peaceful Kosovo.  Four years later, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and thousands of peacekeepers and specialists, Kosovo is a proverbial basket case--unstable, crime-ridden, and a powder keg threatening the stability of the entire Balkans.  This is largely due to the fact that realistic plans for the province's future were shelved in favor of grandiose schemes that looked wonderful when presented in position papers but proved too difficult to implement in practice.

First and foremost, America has neither the time nor the energy to turn Iraq into a vast laboratory to test social science theories about democracy in the Arab and Muslim world.  Nor was this the primary purpose of the war.  Already, the United States has found itself becoming involved in internal political schisms within Iraq .  

The United States should focus on achieving a limited set of goals vis-à-vis a postwar government.  The post-Saddam regime should not seek to develop weapons of mass destruction or sponsor terrorism.  The government should be reasonably transparent and allow for the development of a viable civil society--a challenge noted by Shibley Telhami elsewhere in this issue.  It should allow for a devolution of power from Baghdad to the regions to allow for a good deal of local self-government, but not at the expense of maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq .  

There is a real and profound tension in American postwar policy.  Our idealistic desire for perfection in Iraq --crafting a pro-American, secular liberal democracy--would require a great deal of American control and micromanagement. It would necessitate a long-term and very intrusive U.S. presence.  It would also preclude the ability to bring others into the process--including many Iraqis themselves--but also other partners and donors who could share the burden, cost and responsibility of reconstruction.

Some in Washington fear that opening the process of Iraqi reconstruction to other players--the Europeans, the Russians, and indeed to the entire spectrum of Iraqi society--would prevent the United States from being able to precisely shape the outcome to meet pre-determined ideological goals.  There is, however, an important trade-off.  The more others are involved, the simpler it will be to develop a realistic exit strategy for U.S. forces--not the widely inflated and patently unrealistic claims of "three months" (after all, let us not forget that President Clinton promised that Bosnia post-Dayton would be a one year mission--one that has lasted for eight)--but an exit strategy where U.S. combat forces can be replaced over time with civilian and police specialists from other states.  If for no other reason, U.S. combat forces are needed to provide a more credible edge to efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the Korea crisis, and to credibly demonstrate--both to North Korea and to China --what the alternate to a negotiated settlement would be.  American tankers and special forces should not be bogged down directing traffic and protecting banks in Baghdad while serious negotiations are being conducted in Beijing with North Korean emissaries.  The sooner U.S. combat forces are out of Iraq , the less chance there is of a backlash developing throughout the Muslim world, and this would also free up military assets to deal with other pressing matters.  

Reconstruction efforts in Iraq also set the template for what happens in places like North Korea .  A "go-it-alone" attitude in Iraq is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy for North Korea --a country that economist Marcus Noland described in an earlier issue of In the National Interest as " the world's largest contingent liability."  (http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/vol2issue7/vol2issue7noland.html)

The United States has a preponderance of power in the world, but not unlimited resources.  It cannot afford to squander either its resources or its prestige gained by the recent victory by engaging in an over-ambitious program for Iraq .  


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.