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Trudy Rubin

Posted on Sun, Nov. 17, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Trudy Rubin | Paul Wolfowitz: Not just any optimist

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 Saddam Hussein.

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 pre-eminent intellectual.

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 he goes."

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.

Contact Trudy Rubin at 215-854-5823 or
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