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Iraq: Analysts Disagree About U.S. Postwar Objectives, Strategies

Even before U.S. President George W. Bush has decided whether to go to war against Iraq, his administration is reportedly working on a postwar plan for that country. Some of its elements, however, present problems of their own to the U.S. government.

Washington, 7 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is reported to be completing work on a plan for a postwar Iraq. It includes the presence of a Western military occupation force for perhaps as long as 18 months and would use the proceeds from the sale of Iraqi oil to pay for rebuilding the country.

Analysts say such a plan would pose problems for the United States -- problems of execution as well as problems of perception. They say Bush should approach Iraq after a war just as carefully as he does before a war.

The most difficult task after a war would be how to restore order among Iraqis after Saddam Hussein is removed as their president, according to the U.S. newspaper "The New York Times." But one analyst interviewed by RFE/RL, Ted Galen Carpenter, said the United States should not try to restore order at all, much less try to establish a fledgling democracy.

Carpenter, who specializes in international policy at the Cato Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington, said Bush may have been lulled into believing that an occupation force could work in Iraq because it has worked fairly well so far in Afghanistan.

However, Carpenter said two distinct minority groups in Iraq, the Kurds in the north and the Shiite Muslims in the southeast, would fight to gain autonomy, if not outright independence, once Hussein is deposed. He said putting an occupying force in the country would meet with far less success than it did in Afghanistan. "I'm not sure that will work particularly well in Iraq. For one thing, I think we're likely to attract a lot more opposition in Iraq than we have in Afghanistan to this point. And you don't have the regional warlord structure in Iraq that you have in Afghanistan to stabilize the situation," Carpenter said.

According to Carpenter, not all of the independent factional commanders in Afghanistan may be friendly to the United States, but they maintain at least a semblance of order in their regions, if only to support their own provincial primacy.

But if the United States decides to lead a multinational military invasion of Iraq, Carpenter said, it should quickly depose Hussein, then withdraw immediately. "The U.S. objective should be a regime without Saddam Hussein, not to remake Iraq in the image of the democratic West. I think that's an utterly unobtainable objective," Carpenter said.

James Lindsay disagrees. He is a foreign-policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, another Washington think tank. Lindsay told RFE/RL that the United States has what he calls a "moral responsibility" to do more than simply neutralize Hussein. "The reality is, we simply can't go in, overthrow the regime, and then walk away. We are going to be held responsible both by American citizens and by people outside the United States for the state we leave Iraq in. And I simply think that we have no choice but to engage in nation building," Lindsay said.

Nation building is a term that refers to creating or repairing the democratic institutions of failed or failing states. It is an idea that Bush himself rejected when he campaigned for the U.S. presidency in 2000. Specifically, he spoke of withdrawing U.S. forces from Kosovo because he believed they should not be stationed in a foreign country for purposes of nation building.

Shortly after he became president in January 2001, however, Bush shifted his attitude and decided to leave U.S. troops in Kosovo. And the United States maintains a substantial force in Afghanistan, alongside military personnel from allied countries.

Carpenter said it would be a great mistake for Bush to try to set up a postwar democratic government in Iraq. He cited U.S. nation-building experiences elsewhere over the past two decades, some of which simply did not work, as was the case in the Caribbean state of Haiti, and others that were bloody disasters, such as Lebanon. "Our track record on nation building is absolutely dismal. Whether it's Lebanon in the early 1980s, Somalia in '92-'93, Bosnia since '95, Kosovo, Haiti -- wherever we have tried nation building in recent decades, it has been an absolutely dismal flop. I have no idea why this administration is now attracted to a concept that it condemned during the 2000 presidential campaign," Carpenter said.

Lindsay again disagrees, once more citing what he perceives as the duty of the United States to follow through on armed action, much the way a doctor does after performing surgery. He said he believes Bush now realizes that his opposition to nation building three years ago was misguided. "I think President Bush has discovered what most other presidents have discovered, that what is easy to say in the campaign trail is often very hard to do once you're in the Oval Office. It is very clear that the president of the United States does not like nation building. One of the realities, however, is that when you engage in a war, one simply can't walk away. Much like a doctor has to worry about postoperative care, a president of the United States has to worry about what he leaves behind in the wake of a war," Lindsay said.

Bush also faces the problem of how the United States will be perceived as it uses the sale of Iraqi oil to help rebuild the country after a war.

Already, Bush's critics accuse him of wanting to make war on Iraq not because Hussein is a threat to the Middle East and to the rest of the world. These critics say Bush, who is a former oil executive, as is his vice president, Dick Cheney, wants to take control of Iraq for its oil reserves, the world's second-largest after Saudi Arabia.

Carpenter said he believes Bush is not motivated by greed for oil, but he said many others think he is. And he stressed that perception of motivation can drive the foreign policies of other countries, particularly in the Muslim world. "No matter how we regard it, it is going to be regarded throughout the Islamic world, at the very least, as a manifestation of U.S. imperialism, that what we want is an obedient client state in charge of a major Middle East oil producer, even if its objective is truly a democratic Iraq," Carpenter said.

But Lindsay said Bush can influence such perceptions by doing precisely what Carpenter says Bush should not do: work hard to establish democracy in Iraq. If Iraqis can be shown to be in control of their government during the next few decades, he said, a war to depose Hussein would be seen as justified. "I think ultimately, if the United States does lead a multinational invasion of Iraq, the success of that is going to depend upon whether or not the United States can bring [to Iraq] democracy or something that looks a lot like democracy that improves the prosperity, the safety, and security of average Iraqis," Lindsay said.

Successfully establishing a thriving democracy in Iraq, however, poses its own problems. Some observers have warned that neighboring monarchies such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia might object to the presence of a democracy on the grounds that it could destabilize their royalist regimes.

Lindsay dismissed that objection summarily, saying the United States should not let such countries influence its plan to establish a democracy in Iraq. "I think the United States has long argued, and justifiably, that democracy is an aspiration for all peoples, not simply for Americans, not simply for people of European descent, but it's an aspiration of all people to be free, to have a government that is both responsive to the people and limited in its powers. And so I think that we can't talk about Iraq and say, 'Well, we can't help the Iraqis gain democratic government because it inconveniences the Saudis,'" Lindsay said.

According to Lindsay, there is no guarantee that Iraq will have what he calls a "perfect democracy" in the first six years, or even the first 16 years, after Hussein's departure. He said building the institutions necessary for self-rule takes decades, and patience.

In the meantime, he said, Iraqis will have to put up with bumps in the road toward democracy, and countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will just have to get used to their neighbor's new political system.