This week I had the chance to sit down with someone who's an optimist about Iraq.
Not just any optimist. I refer to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul
Wolfowitz, the administration's most persistent advocate of ousting
Wolfowitz' worldview helps clarify the thinking behind the
administration's obsession with the Iraqi leader. (At this delicate
moment in the Iraq saga, with the administration currently committed to
U.N. arms inspections rather than military action, much of our
conversation was on deep background.)
Yes, the administration worries about Saddam's biological and
chemical weapons, the possibility he may get nukes, and the chance he
might pass them off to terrorists. But the goal of changing the Iraqi
regime is part of a much larger project - and I don't mean grabbing oil
or protecting Israel.
The creation of a new Iraq is central to the administration's vision of the role America should play in the post-9/11 world.
Back in 1992, then-Undersecretary of Defense Wolfowitz (who served under Reagan and Bush pre)
supervised the draft of an ambitious new defense doctrine. It proposed
that the United States should prevent the rise of any new superpower
that could rival U.S. primacy around the world. The United States would
convince would-be competitors that its dominance was so beneficial it
wasn't worth challenging.
When news of the doctrine leaked to the press, it was watered down.
But its essence has become the core of the Bush administration's new
national security doctrine. And Wolfowitz is the administration's
Where does Iraq fit into the doctrine? Post 9/11, the challenge to
U.S. supremacy comes not so much from states as from international
terrorists - and states who aid them. The biggest threat originates in
Muslim countries, including the Mideast.
A U.S. triumph in Iraq would send a dramatic message. "If we can
defeat a terrorist regime in Iraq, it will be a defeat for terrorists
globally," Wolfowitz said in a speech on Oct. 16. Moreover, "[Saddam's]
demise will open opportunities for governments and institutions to
emerge in the Muslim world that are respectful of fundamental human
dignity and freedom...."
In other words, Iraq not only could become a democracy but could be the launch pad for transforming the entire Mideast.
Only an a utopian dreamer could put forward such a vision.
Wolfowitz has little patience with arguments that war with Iraq
could encourage Muslim jihadists. Not for him the worry that Arab
satellite television will inflame the masses with endless scenes of
dead Iraqi civilians and Palestinians suffering under Israeli curfew.
He has repeatedly waved aside fears that Saddam's fall from power will
cause instability in the region.
Part of his confidence stems from the belief that TV cameras will
show Iraqis dancing in the streets of Baghdad on The Day After, as
Afghans did in Kabul.
"It is entirely possible that in Iraq, you have the most
pro-American population that can be found anywhere in the Arab world,"
Wolfowitz told me, for quotation.
Iraqi opposition activists say U.S. troops may indeed be welcomed
right after they enter Iraqi cities (provided a war is short and Iraqi
civilian casualties aren't large). But they also say that old
suspicions and resentments linger - at past American betrayals of Kurds
and Shiites, and sanctions - and that the warmth may fade quickly if
the troops stay very long.
And then there is the danger that Iraqis will collapse into
struggles among tribes, ethnic groups and religious confessions over
who gets what share of power and oil. Wolfowitz doubts the likelihood
of such chaos. But, he says, "If there is a real fear about what
happens after Saddam goes, you would want the American army there when
The problem here is that the burdens for resolving the chaos would
then fall on the shoulders of U.S. forces. If you take over a country,
you own it, unless you can hand off to locals pretty fast.
To be fair, administration officials, with some key exceptions, seem
aware of the danger of long-term occupation. They are familiar with the
warnings of the noted Mideast scholar Bernard Lewis, who cautions that
Israelis were welcomed at first by local Lebanese Shiites in South
Lebanon. The Shiites were happy to see the departure of the Palestine
Liberation Organization. But Israeli troops stayed on for years and
soon were viewed as occupiers. They were bloodied by guerrilla attacks
and ultimately pulled out.
Wolfowitz doesn't advocate the Japan model of U.S. occupation (as
some administration officials have done). In Japan, a six-year U.S.
presence and the proconsulship of General MacArthur created a democracy
in a non-European nation after World War II. This definitely wouldn't
work in Iraq.
Yet how else can one envision the establishment of democracy in a country that has known only autocracy and brutal dictatorship?
"If you're looking for a historical analogy," the soft-spoken,
professorial Pentagon official suggested, "it's probably closer to
post-liberation France [after World War II]."
That one threw me for a bit, but I think I get it. Led by Gen.
Charles de Gaulle, the Free French were looked down on when they were
based in London, but the general became a hero-leader when the war was
over. The Wall Street Journal suggested a parallel this week between de
Gaulle and the exiled Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi, of the
Iraqi National Congress.
The parallel is pretty dicey. De Gaulle was a charismatic general
directing organized resistance on the ground. He came home after five
years of exile to a mono-ethnic France untroubled by interfering
neighbors. Germany was prostrate, the United States was the overlord of
Europe. France, a European nation with (admittedly spotty) experience
of democracy, didn't need U.S. tutelage.
No Iraqi exile has anything like de Gaulle's legitimacy at home.
Certainly not Chalabi, for all his capabilities. Once in Baghdad, U.S.
officials would have to mediate among Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Turkmen,
Assyrians, secularists, Islamists, tribal leaders, leftover Baath party
officials, and Iraq's anxious neighbors who will want to intervene.
At best, we will be the long-term referee behind the scenes, blamed
for what goes wrong, suspected of myriad conspiracies against Iraqis
and their oil. Better than Saddam, no doubt. But a democracy - before,
at best, another two decades - is unlikely.
Call me a pessimist. But if the rosy view of Iraq's potential as
role model for the region is driving a desire for an early war, it is
very misguided. If we have to go after Saddam's weapons, let's do it
with eyes wide open.
Otherwise we may wind up like Israel in Lebanon.