Last week, we called attention to a disturbing tendency among American policymakers and commentators to base their assessments of what happens in the Middle East on the basis of faith rather than facts. For example, it has been an article of faith in some circles that Iraqis would rise up to overthrow Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime at the first sign of American resolve. That has not occurred. And even where local citizens have more-or-less welcomed coalition forces, including in some parts of Baghdad, the tense environment, near-riots, and growing dissatisfaction in some areas with the pace of humanitarian aid shipments point to the fragility of pro-American sentiment.
This raises a variety of questions about how, by whom, and at what cost Iraq is to be governed after the eventual American victory over the current regime.
At present, the coalition has clearly disrupted Saddam's control over large portions of Iraq, including its capital, and may even have killed or severely wounded the Iraqi dictator. But this does not automatically mean that the United States-or anyone else-controls those areas. Many ordinary Iraqis seem to be taking a "wait-and-see approach," while Ba'ath party cells and groups of fedayeen remain manifestly loyal to the regime. And CENTCOM's Brigadier General Vincent Brooks quite correctly said recently, we should not mistake celebration of Saddam's demise for enthusiasm toward American troops. Even the crowd toppling Saddam's statue in central Baghdad did not number much over 1,000 people-a number to bear in mind in a city of five million.
Taking this into account, we cannot expect that a post-Saddam administration will enjoy inherent legitimacy and automatic acceptance simply because it replaces Hussein's despicable rule. For many Iraqis, the motives of exile groups remain suspect-some for good reason. Ahmed Chalabi, who seems to be favored by neo-conservatives and has already been installed as the leader of the "Free Iraqi Force" now operating in southern Iraq, has a questionable record marred by allegations of both financial mismanagement and ineffective leadership. He was also among those who erroneously predicted that large numbers of Iraqis would quickly desert Saddam's regime and welcome the U.S. attack on their country. Chalabi's long absence from Iraq may well have affected his ability to make accurate predictions; whatever the cause, his political judgment does not seem sufficiently keen to lead Iraq's challenging reconstruction.
Iraq is unlike Afghanistan, where there were viable opposition movements on the ground that pre-dated U.S. intervention, where there was already another internationally-recognized government of Afghanistan apart from the Taliban, and where preparatory meetings for a grand loya jirga had been held even prior to September 11. To the extent that alternative institutions do exist in Iraqi Kurdistan they are based on an ethnic minority eager for significant autonomy-if not outright independence-from the rest of the country. Iraq's Shi'ite Muslims, who are also among those most hostile to Saddam Hussein, have their own interests and objectives as well-and these may not be in alignment with either Mr. Chalabi's or America's preferences.
The bottom line is that simply proclaiming a new government exists does not mean that it will be able to lead without coercion. This is not an inconsequential point. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz famously dismissed Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki's assertion before the war that the occupation of Iraq could require a few hundred thousand American troops. This may not be the case if the U.S. succeeds in establishing a legitimate and effective interim administration that in turn creates a widely accepted Iraqi government. But occupying Iraq could require many more soldiers than unseating Saddam if the United States attempts to install a narrow or unpopular interim authority by force. Another real possibility is that the United States may succeed in initially establishing a such a government without resorting to force, but would be gradually drawn into defending the it against growing popular resentment, especially if the population believes that Washington has simply replaced one oppressive elite with a less violent but still illegitimate alternative. Can the Iraqi National Congress remain in power in Iraq relying solely on democratic means? If not, Iraq could remain an example to the Middle East, but it might be an example of the price of confronting a superpower rather than the promise of democracy. Though a little more fear of American power may be constructive in some areas, it is difficult to know whether such an example would deter or provoke further terrorism against the United States.
Another point: America is an enormously powerful country and is probably capable of running Iraq in any manner it chooses. However, the various options along the continuum between installing whomever we choose in power by force and rebuilding Iraq ourselves, on one hand, and ceding total control over Iraqi reconstruction to the United Nations, on the other, are sharply distinguished by their cost to the U.S. taxpayer.
Iraq's annual oil revenue-often estimated at $15 billion-is clearly insufficient for the country's genuine reconstruction in a manner likely to create a stable democracy, the stated goal of U.S. policy. From this perspective, Iraq is not only a prize but also a considerable burden and Washington should welcome international involvement. This is not slavish multilateralism or naïve devotion to the United Nations; on the contrary, it is a hard-headed and pragmatic approach to advancing American interests.
The fundamental problem is that the United States of America is unlikely to become a true imperial power by seizing direct control of Iraq's oil and other revenues and ruling the country with an iron fist. But if the U.S. liberates Iraq with the intention of turning everything over to the Iraqi people, American efforts to reconstruct and manage Iraq alone are essentially half-measures that deliver the worst of both worlds: most or all of the costs (financial and otherwise) of empire with few or none of the benefits, especially the creation of a stable, pro-American regime. Thus, once Saddam Hussein's dangerous regime has been eliminated (the main benefit of the war), the United States should make every effort to distribute the costs of the enterprise (including whatever resentment eventually emerges) as broadly as possible. This cannot be done without meaningful roles for international institutions, as well as other
governments, in Iraq's reconstruction. Even France, Germany, and Russia should be included, provided that they are willing to accept appropriate responsibilities in Iraq. It may be tempting for the United States to punish governments opposed to the war, but it is ultimately foolish to do so at our own expense.
Coming full circle, broad international involvement in Iraq will also help to legitimize whatever interim administration and government are ultimately established and hopefully to limit, in time and numbers, the American military presence in the country. This is the lesson of Afghanistan, where other states have stepped in to provide the bulk of the funds and personnel needed to reconstruct the Afghan state and society.
Repairing America's frayed international ties by extending an open invitation to join in the reconstruction of Iraq is also a first step in preparing to cope with the next set of challenges that await the United States-the Korean nuclear crisis, restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and coping with the threat of nuclear proliferation to other states. American power and determination are indispensable to American leadership. But blind faith in power and determination-like any blind faith-may lead to unpleasant surprises.
Paul J. Saunders is director of The Nixon Center. Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.