War with Iraq is drawing near. Saddam Hussein clearly has no intention of complying with the U.N. resolutions requiring him to report and surrender his weapons of mass destruction. Most of his neighbors, who are clearly threatened by his hegemonic ambitions, want his regime gone. But how we go to war, and how we manage the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, will decisively shape the long-term effects of this high-risk endeavor.
The greatest danger to the United States is not that Saddam will acquire a nuclear weapons capability soon. That is unlikely to happen in the next year or two. The greatest danger is our own imperial overreach and the global wave of anti-Americanism that it is already provoking. Societies throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world believe that America’s real intention in Iraq is imperial: to overthrow the regime and occupy the country so that we can control its oil reserves.
We cannot allow our decisions and actions in the coming months to confirm this suspicion.
We must launch and fight the war the way we resumed the weapons inspections process in Iraq, through a patient and consultative process of international coalition building. If at all possible, this process should use the legitimacy of the United Nations. Yet even if an explicit Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force cannot be obtained, we must show the world some compelling evidence that Saddam’s regime has flouted its obligations to disarm. A crucial requirement here, as New York Times columnist William Safire has argued, is to insist that the U.N. inspections mission in Iraq fly Iraqi scientists to a neutral location safely outside the country, and interview them in absolute secrecy about these programs. We will pay a heavy price if we decide unilaterally, without convincing evidence, that he is in "material breach" and then launch a war that the U.N. Security Council has not authorized and that our most important allies in Europe and the Middle East do not support.
Planning is already under way, not only for the war but also for the administration of a postwar Iraq. And the same indifference to global perceptions that shaped our initial approach to the confrontation with Saddam—before Colin Powell turned the Bush administration toward U.N.- sponsored process—now shapes our thinking about the day after. The Bush administration has been thinking seriously about governing a postwar Iraq for at least two years through an American military government of occupation—à la Douglas MacArthur in Japan. Presumably, under this arrangement, the United States would also administer Iraq’s oil revenue and might even claim some of that revenue as “reimbursement” for the liberation of the country.
Postwar Iraq will not resemble postwar Japan, and 2003 will not be 1945. There are much more profound and widespread international suspicions of American motives, and a much greater ability to disrupt American operations, now than there was in East Asia, or West Germany, in the late 1940s. Such a unilateral American government of occupation is most unlikely to produce a democratic Iraq. But it will definitely confirm the suspicions—particularly in Arab countries and the broader Muslim world—that the “great game” of controlling oil is what has motivated the United States in its confrontation with Saddam all along.
An extended, unilateral American military occupation of Iraq would legitimize widespread regional defiance. American soldiers would quickly turn from liberators to occupiers and come under frequent attack from snipers and terrorists. Globally, assaults on Americans and American interests—which are likely to increase even under the most optimistic immediate postwar scenario—would proliferate. It would be costly and ugly. Our principled purposes—defending fundamental principles of international order, empowering the United Nations as a body not to be blatantly defied, preventing a cruel, reckless, and megalomaniacal dictator from having the ultimate weapon of mass destruction—would quickly become obscured and forgotten.
Building democracy—or at least orderly and responsible governance—in a postwar Iraq must start in partnership with the Iraqi people and the international community. Formal United Nations administration, which has not distinguished itself (or avoided an imperial style) in other postconflict situations, is not the only alternative. An interim Iraqi government could quickly be constructed through a transparent and legitimate process of dialogue, working alongside an international coalition that would include the United States but not necessarily be led by it. Concessions for the production of future Iraqi oil would be made transparent by this emerging Iraqi authority, not carved up secretly (and even in advance) by an American administration.
The hawks in the Bush administration are right about one thing: The present moment is virtually unprecedented in world history in terms of the disparity between American military power and that of all our enemies—or allies—combined. But military prowess is not the only form of power. Our ability to shape the destiny of a world now much less secure after September 11 depends as well on crucial dimensions of “soft power,” including our economic vitality, our cultural openness, our commitment to freedom, and our self-restraint as a hegemonic power that has nevertheless held the imperial temptation at bay. All of those are at serious risk in the coming confrontation with Iraq.
Unless Saddam is toppled from within or goes into exile, war with Iraq is inevitable, sooner or later. But how that war is fought and how Iraq is resurrected will profoundly shape the world after September 11, and the security of the United States within it.