Begrudgingly, senior administration officials are beginning to discuss prospects for post-war Iraq. While publicly they are as cheery about Iraq without Hussein as they are dire about the risks of leaving him in power, privately, they harbor grave doubts. As one senior official told a New York Times reporter, "We still do not know how U.S. forces will be received. Will it be cheers, jeers or shots? And the fact is, we won't know until we get there."
We should not be surprised at the uncertainty, for what they're planning is unprecedented in U.S. history. This will not just be our first pre-emptive war, but it will be followed by a massive, indefinite occupation. President Bush intends to send more than 200,000 American men and women to invade and occupy a large, complex nation of 24 million people half a world away. The last time any Western power did anything similar was before World War II. The last time any nation did this was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
As retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former head of NATO forces, says, this war will "put us in a colonial position in the Middle East following Britain, following the Ottomans. It's a huge change for the American people and for what this country stands for."
To the rest of the world it will indeed look like colonialism. With the best of intentions, and with surprisingly little public discussion, we are about to overthrow a government, appoint a U.S. military ruler, and, after several years of transition, install our hand-picked alternatives. There is little discussion of an exit strategy -- a key part of the Powell Doctrine, as are the use of overwhelming force and support of the American public, now forgotten even by the doctrine's author, Secretary of State Colin Powell.
There is no exit strategy not just because it's hard to devise, but because many of the president's men don't want to leave Iraq. For them, Iraq is just the beginning. American military forces will unleash a "democratic tsunami," they believe, that will transform all Arab governments and fortify the region for American interests for decades to come. Inspired by the model of a democratic Iraq, the people of Syria and Iran will overthrow their leaders. This will lead to a democratic Palestinian Authority that will give Israel a reliable negotiating partner for a final settlement.
The reason the administration has abandoned any effort to negotiate a Middle East peace plan is that for them the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad. President Bush hinted at this vision when he told the United Nations last September, "The people of Iraq can shake off their captivity. They can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world."
This democratic revolution, of course, will be accompanied by the use of U. S. troops. The president's National Security Strategy of September 2002 notes, "The United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia, as well as temporary access arrangements for the long-distance deployment of U.S. troops." These extensive deployments will require huge increases in defense spending, with the president's new budget projecting rises over the next few years to $500 billion annually from the current $350 billion. This does not include the estimated $40 billion per year that will be needed to maintain 150,000 American troops in Iraq.
A DANGEROUS FANTASY
This "vision" is a dangerous fantasy. Iraq will be in chaos after a war, with long-suppressed hatreds boiling to the surface, surrounded by Arab nations whose leaders give grudging backing to U.S. war plans, but whose officials and publics seethe at American arrogance. Some Iraqis will certainly welcome us as liberators; many will certainly not. Even in the Kurdish areas of Iraq where we already have alliances with friendly groups, there are fiercely anti-American factions allied with al Qaeda that maintain the terrorist training camp shown in the photos Secretary Powell presented to the U.N. Security Council.
In U.S.-occupied Iraq, our troops will become convenient targets of terrorist snipers and bombers. The problems of massive shortages of food, medicine and jobs will become our problems. If the Kurds decide this is the time to realize their generations-long dream of an independent Kurdistan, will it be a U.S. commander who tells them that freedom for Iraq does not mean freedom for them? Or will we just let the Turkish troops cross the border to maintain "order"?
When Kurdish and Turkmen minorities forced from several key cities by Saddam's ethnic cleansing decide that they want to return to claim their homes, will U.S. troops help them or block them? Just one refugee camp outside the city of Kirkuk holds 120,000 displaced Kurds and Turkmen. Who will explain that liberty for Iraqis does not mean the liberty to return home? For all those administration officials who abhorred and condemned the arduous efforts at ethnic conflict resolution in Bosnia and Kosovo during the Clinton years, welcome to nation-building.
BREEDING GROUND FOR Al QAEDA
But these are comparatively minor problems. Far more serious will be the regional animosity let loose by a U.S. invasion. Even if the war itself goes well, and we can avoid the horrors of chemical weapons, house-to-house fighting and torched oil fields, the bombing campaign said to involve 3,000 bombs in the first two days alone will kill thousands. And this time every television station in the world wants to be live from Baghdad. CNN was alone in 1991; now there are dozens of CNNs. Each will broadcast live photos of dead Iraqis being pulled from the rubble.
The war will be a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists. The leaders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring states fear for the stability of their governments. Will Pakistanis riot, throwing the world's only Muslim nuclear nation into chaos?
There will certainly be a regional reaction to the U.S. invasion, but it almost certainly will not be a wave of democratic revolutions. How can we know? We just have to look back at the previous efforts of empires with the best of intentions -- the British, the French, and the Germans -- to understand what happens when Western nations try to bring "civilization" to the Middle East on the points of their bayonets.
Originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.