Accessibility links

U.S.: Washington Would Face Severe Nation-Building Tests In Post-Hussein Iraq

  • Charles Recknagel

Washington is planning for an extended occupation of Iraq following any war to topple Saddam Hussein. U.S. officials say the occupation is needed to help Iraq begin developing a democratic system that will transform it into a stable country that does not threaten its neighbors. But transforming Iraq is likely to result in enormous problems and expenses for the United States that could severely test its staying power. RFE/RL looks at some of the challenges.

Prague, 12 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials are beginning to talk more publicly about Washington's plans to occupy Iraq for an unspecified time following any overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, talking to U.S. troops in Italy last week, said Washington would assure that a post-Hussein Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction and that it does not threaten its neighbors.

Rumsfeld also said Washington would try to put Iraq on the path toward a parliamentary democracy that respects the rights of all its minorities. "We feel an obligation to see that what is left after that regime is gone becomes a state that does not have weapons of mass destruction, and that would be part of our responsibility; that it would be a state that would not threaten its neighbors and launch Scuds or use chemical weapons on their own people or their neighbors, as they have in the past; that it would be a single country and not broken into pieces; and that it would be a country that would be setting itself on a path to assure representation and respect for the various ethnic minorities in that country," Rumsfeld said.

He also said planning is under way to achieve those goals, including what he called assisting Iraq with its "civil affairs" following any regime change. "It will require people who are willing to come in and assist with civil affairs and with humanitarian assistance, and all of that planning is taking place," Rumsfeld said.

The top U.S. defense official provided no specifics, but his statements suggested that Washington is preparing to administer Iraq for a prolonged period in order to substantially change its form of government.

U.S. media have reported that President George W. Bush's national-security advisers envision an 18-month military occupation of Iraq in which a U.S. military commander would run the country in tandem with a civilian administration. There is no indication yet of whether the civilian administrator would be appointed by the United States or the United Nations, or whether there would be a transitional Iraqi government along the lines of that in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, U.S. officials speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the occupation could last two years or even longer. They added that "enormous uncertainties" made it impossible to say how long troops would need to stay and how expensive such an extended mission would be.

That cost to the U.S. budget is one of two key factors that could go a long way toward determining how long the U.S. presence lasts. The price tag could directly influence how long the American public will help pay for administering a foreign state.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently concluded that the costs could range from $99 billion to almost $2 trillion over a decade. The estimates, which the academy calls "informed conjecture," reflect scenarios ranging from a swift war and brief occupation to a prolonged war with a disruption of the oil markets and a U.S. recession.

By comparison, the 1991 Gulf War cost the United States some $61 billion. All but $7 billion of that was later reimbursed by U.S. allies.

The U.S. government has not commented on the cost estimates, saying it is premature to do so when Washington still hopes for peaceful solutions to the Iraq crisis. But in September, the president's chief economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsay, estimated that a war with Iraq could cost between $100 billion and $200 billion.

Washington has said it hopes to pay for much of the cost of administering Iraq by reviving Iraq's hard-hit oil sector and increasing exports. It is unclear how increased exports would be viewed by the oil cartel OPEC, of which Baghdad is a member.

The possible high costs of any war and occupation have caused some commentators who favor military action to call on Bush to prepare the American public for an extended commitment on Iraq.

Thomas Friedman of "The New York Times" recently wrote that the White House is "gearing up for the rebuilding of Iraq, along the lines of the rebuilding of Germany and Japan after World War Two, and Americans are geared up, at best, for the quick and dirty invasion of Grenada." (The U.S. military intervention on the Caribbean island of Grenada in October 1983 -- named Operation Urgent Fury -- reversed a Marxist coup earlier that month, and U.S. troops were withdrawn soon afterward.)

A second factor that could determine how long a U.S. occupation lasts may be the difficulty of transforming Iraq from a strongly centralized, authoritarian state to parliamentary democracy.

Falih Abdul Jabbar, an Iraqi sociologist at London University in England, said that putting Iraq on the path to representative government would require not just U.S. political encouragement but also a profound restructuring of the Iraqi economy.

Jabbar said that the Iraqi economy today is structured to support an all-powerful government from which favors flow outward to those who are loyal. That is the inverse of Western democracies, where the people support the government with their taxes and demand representation and accountability in exchange. "The government is oil-rich and has its own autonomous revenues. It doesn't rely on taxes, and no taxation [means] no representation, as we know. Instead of people paying to the government for its services to them, the government is paying the people for their loyalty to it. So, it's an inverted relation [compared to Western democracies]," Jabbar said.

Jabbar said that even Iraq's private sector is almost fully dependent upon the government for the contacts, contracts, and financing needed to do business. "In Iraq, you don't have any separation between the economy and politics. We have a command economy with a very limited, crony clientele, so to speak, in the private sector. It is highly dependent on the government in terms of finances, in terms of contracts, what have you. If you don't have this separation, you don't have an institutional basis for any liberalism," Jabbar said.

So far, U.S. officials are said to be divided over how much Washington can hope to transform Iraq's political and economic life and over what period of time.

Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute in Washington said that some officials favor an extended U.S. administration of Iraq following the model of General Douglas MacArthur, who directed Japan's reconstruction after World War II.

But Carpenter said that others in Washington want an abbreviated occupation so that a U.S. administration in Iraq does not become a target of hostility. "I think there is a struggle within the administration between a faction that wants a MacArthur-like regency for Iraq, where the U.S. and its allies run the show for a good many months, if not two or three years, and a faction in the administration that wants to turn this over to the Iraqis as soon as possible and begin to withdraw the U.S. military presence so that it does not become a lightning rod for discontent in the Islamic world," Carpenter said.

Those divisions may reflect awareness in Washington that, of all the elements in the Iraq crisis, waging war against Baghdad and securing victory may be the easiest. What comes after could offer Washington still greater challenges. And that is trying to sustain what could be years of hard nation-building work on a scale the United States has not attempted since it was fully mobilized to defeat and reconstruct Germany and Japan almost 60 years ago.