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Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2002 / 15 Adar, 5762

Michael Barone

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Taking on Iraq

The nature of the regime that replaces Saddam Hussein's is of critical importance --
WHAT next in the war on terrorism?

Colin Powell's robust and articulate advocacy before congressional committees of the United States going after Iraq, alone if need be, leaves little doubt that President Bush has decided to take on Iraq, and within months, not years. Opponents of going after Iraq-or those who think, as Al Gore's foreign policy adviser Leon Fuerth does, that we should take on Iraq but some time later-had looked to Powell as their supporter in the administration. If he was at one time, he is no longer. Bush has clearly made his decision, and his secretary of State is ably and effectively supporting it.

We can be reasonably confident that the Pentagon is working on-probably has been working on, for some months-military plans for taking on Iraq. What may be more important in the long run, however, is a debate that is probably still going on within the administration: What kind of post-war Iraq should we seek to create?

A similar debate went on about Afghanistan. For days and weeks, there was talk that air and on-the-ground operations should wait on an Afghan consensus on who should govern after the defeat of the Taliban. There was even talk of convening a loya jirga-a council of Afghan elders-before military action took place. But a decision was made to go ahead even when post-conflict plans were uncertain. The United States, it seems to have been decided, would try to encourage a nominal central government under Hamid Karzai, but we would not commit large numbers of U.S. troops to patrol the countryside and enforce his writ. Troops from other countries could be used instead. This has produced an Afghan government that exerts very much less than total control over Afghanistan. But it does enough to prevent damage to nearby nations-Pakistan and the Central Asian republics-which we want to reward for their support in the war. For the moment that is enough.

We have a greater stake in a post-war Iraq. The nature of the regime that replaces Saddam Hussein's is of critical importance to all its neighbors-Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria-and with each of them we have very different relations and aims. The argument that seems to be going on within the administration now is whether we should seek to place a democratic, secular government in power or whether we should stand ready to accept such strongmen as may stand ready to replace Saddam.

In the short run, the temptation may be to accept a strongman who turns against his leader. This could result in a speedier end to the war, and it would mean the United States would not have to engage in the "nation building" that George W. Bush criticized during his campaign. A dictator seems in the short run easier to deal with, and he can impose order without worry about complaints from the Iraqi Civil Liberties Union. This was the theory on which Yitzak Rabin accepted Yasser Arafat as an interlocutor for peace in the Oslo process. Arafat, Rabin thought, could use ruthless methods to squelch terrorism among the Palestinians. Today some argue that there are no viable Iraqi democratic leaders anyway. Better to settle for a dictator who promises to end Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction and support of terrorism.

The problem, as Natan Sharansky warned and as Israel now knows, is that dictatorial leaders don't reliably squelch terrorism. Lacking legitimacy, fearing violent overthrow, they are tempted to let terrorists operate if they just aim their attacks outside the tent and hope to distract their people's desire for better government with violent rhetoric.

The arguments for encouraging some kind of democratic framework in Iraq is that it will in the long run be more reliable in squelching terrorism and will set an example that will affect Iraq's neighbors. In the first half of the 20th century, the major event in the Islamic world was the creation of a secular and (imperfectly) democratic republic in Turkey. It has proved a bastion of strength against Nazism and Communism and an integral part of NATO. Unfortunately, in the second half of the 20th century, no Islamic nations followed Turkey's example. It would be a better world-and especially a better Middle East-if in the 21st century some did. Iraq, with a large secular middle class and a population that surely by now hates Saddam Hussein, is a plausible candidate.

Much of the debate within the administration is over the possible role of the London-based Iraqi National Congress. Advocates of a democratic Iraq see the INC as a possible framework; its leaders and its founding documents endorse democracy, rule of law, and a peaceful role in Middle East conflicts. While no one claims the INC is ready to govern, it does stand as at least a rhetorical nucleus around which a plausible interim government committed to eventual democracy and rule of law can be formed. Others in the administration, especially in the CIA and the State Department, disagree. They see the INC as a ragtag bunch of émigrés, without significant military assets within Iraq, out of touch with the people of the country, and laughably inadequate as the nucleus of a possible government. At least until the INC demonstrates that it is something more than this, its critics argue, we should put no reliance on it. They have successfully prevented disbursement of funds appropriated by Congress for the INC to spend on internal operations in Iraq.

This argument could ultimately be settled by President Bush-or by events. For the fact is that we cannot know what the course of a war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq must be, and we must be prepared to adjust to circumstances and improvise militarily and politically, as we did in Afghanistan. But it seems unlikely that we will be able to lead Iraq toward democracy without firm direction from President Bush. A democratic Iraq could put pressure on the Iranian mullahs and encourage the people of Iran, who seem disgusted with the mullahs' regime, to overthrow it. It could put pressure on Saudi Arabia to change and to cease exporting a form of Islam that is intolerant of all other religions and promotes religious dictatorship. It could fortify democratic Turkey and undermine dictatorial Syria. It could leave Israel much safer than it is today.

Great war leaders have always understood that the decisions they make in war and the overall goals they set help determine the shape of the postwar world. What will be George W. Bush's decisions and goals for Iraq?

Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone