A delicate post-Saddam balancing act
March 24, 2003
The ex-Marine remembers Round One.
Steve Smithson, now a Gulf War expert with the American Legion, was a lance corporal in 1991, blazing through the Kuwaiti desert, disarming Iraqis.
Some of the Iraqis wore sweat clothes. They looked like ordinary guys who had been pulled off the street and given guns. Many seemed relieved to see the Yanks. One guy even yelled, “Death to Saddam.”
But not everyone was so congenial. Once, when troops were searching captured Iraqis, a prisoner lunged at a Marine in Smithson’s battalion. Another Marine killed the man.
“Not all Iraqis surrendered peacefully,” Smithson said. “Some fought to the bitter end.”
Anecdotes like this point out the uncertainty of war, even at its conclusion. Yet the military is already planning what will happen then. What may be hardest to divine is how safe a postwar Iraq would be for soldiers. And that largely lies on the success of nation-building plans, over which troops have no influence.
They could be treated as heroes during one phase and as occupying infidels the next, and the difference could depend on just how long GIs are asked to keep the new peace.
Whether throngs in Baghdad throw flowers or bottles at the Americans hinges on complex variables, experts say, such as how long it takes for a democratic government to dawn, how many Iraqis die during the war and how long fighting lasts.
Officially, the United States promises to stay as long as is needed in Iraq, but no longer. Unofficially, Beltway chatter has suggested a transitional government would look something like the one America installed in Japan following World War II. Washington has already announced that Gen. Tommy Franks would keep the peace during reconstruction.
Though that may sound pragmatic enough, the notion riles exiled Iraqis who hope to lead a liberated nation immediately after Saddam’s topple. The mix creates an uneasy alliance and an uncertain mission for troops serving in a postwar Iraq.
The mission “could look like Bosnia, and that’d be great,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Piers Wood, a former West Point history professor and now a fellow at GlobalSecurity.org. “It could also look a lot like Somalia.”
Somali-style reaction would be a soldier’s worst nightmare. Think “Black Hawk Down.”
Wood thinks the way to avoid such a disaster is to not only follow the Japanese model, but to follow it exactly. Those who worry an Arab state could never truly be democratized, he argues, should find solace in the fact that prior to the end of World War II, the Japanese considered their emperor a god.
Following such a scheme in Iraq would mean not only putting a general in charge, but also bringing in scores of civilian experts on banking, agriculture and oil.
“They’re gonna have to round up some really competent Arabic-speaking business people and university intellectuals who are willing to take on a job in which diarrhea is a way of life,” Wood said.
And though the United States is loath to use the word “occupation,” choosing the more marketable term “liberation,” Wood said that, in effect, there would be no difference.
As in the case of Japan, Wood believes the United States should redistribute land to the penniless to avoid the growth of al-Qaida sympathies. Otherwise, he alleges, U.S. troops could face an increasingly hostile Iraqi public.
“Would they overthrow MacArthur to get the landlords back?” Wood asked, referring to Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the Japanese. “It worked like a champ.”
Such a plan is exactly the scenario that Iraqi exiles, keen not only for democracy but also a prime place in it, hope to avoid.
“They will be very surprised the way the people will welcome the American Army,” said Faisal Qaragholi, operations officer for the Iraqi National Congress in London. “… There will be flowers thrown at them. But I don’t know that this honeymoon will last very long if they think the Americans are trying to run things.”
Qaragholi said liberating forces must install order in a war-wracked Iraq, but must leave immediately after and let democracy run its course.
When asked about following the Japanese model, Qaragholi reacted hotly, calling the debate a media invention. He said the U.S. administration has promised Iraqis a swift ascension to self-government.
“We know Iraqis are more than capable of governing themselves,” Qaragholi said.
Iraq already has civil servants, Qaragholi argues. It has a stock market. Baghdad was once considered a desert Paris, a cosmopolitan cultural center, nothing like Afghanistan. These days, 58 percent of the nation is literate, according to the CIA, compared with 36 percent in Afghanistan. Though Iraq’s war with Iran, failed annexation of Kuwait and subsequent sanctions have eviscerated its economy, exiled Iraqis say the country can right itself if freed from Saddam.
Wood believes U.S. troops should nonetheless remain for about five years. The Pentagon reportedly wants out as soon as possible, while the State Department has pressured the administration to err on the side of patience.
Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, has said there is no firm deadline for withdrawal. Feith has told the Senate that the Pentagon is committed to stay as long as needed, and to leave as soon as possible.
But Wood worries that the Bush administration is dabbling with the Japanese model while unwilling to go the distance. He fears the administration will overburden the military with the business of nation-building, rather than letting civilian experts do the brainy work. During the World War II years, the officer ranks swelled with private-sector professionals.
Wood believes actual reconstruction should not fall to career soldiers.
“They wouldn’t do anything but a half-assed job,” he said.
And as for Iraqi exiles running things, Wood believes they shouldn’t “be able to run for dog catcher.” He believes the movement’s leaders come from a moneyed class whose interests are at odds with the Iraqi on the street.
Many, if not most, prominent exiles have been absent from Iraq for decades.
“They have very little base in Iraq, and many Iraqis wouldn’t really trust these guys,” said Jochen Hippler, a researcher of peace studies at the University of Duisburg in Germany who has visited Iraq several times.
Hippler also fears a U.S. military-run government would be a tough sell.
“My impression is an ambiguity,” Hippler said. “On one hand, most people in Iraq would (like to) see Saddam Hussein go. At the same time, most Iraqis don’t look forward to being ruled from the outside.”
Hippler also wonders how committed President Bush would be to having troops keep the peace in Iraq. Bush threatened to pull troops from Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina during his election campaign.
In December, the Brussels, Belgium-based International Crisis Group released a covertly conducted survey in which some 30 Iraqis told an interviewer they would welcome U.S. troops if the troops did away with Saddam. The U.S. government trumpeted the report.
But the organization responsible insists it only looked at the short term.
“They will welcome, I think on the basis of the discussions we did, anyone who overthrows the regime,” said Joost Hiltermann, ICG’s Middle East project director in Jordan.
But when asked how Iraqis would react to U.S. troops over time, Joost hesitated.
“I’m not necessarily optimistic,” he said.
Plan for prosperity
Last month, Iraqi exiles gathered in Dearborn, Mich., where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz pledged them American support.
According to government transcripts, the audience urged Wolfowitz to take Saddam to the woodshed, and pronto. Others thanked the United States for its help and stance.
Some wanted answers: What would Iraq look like post-Saddam? Would the military really run things? Have we been snookered?
Wolfowitz avoided specifics, but he promised that no “junior Saddam Hussein” would take the reins. He said the military would quench oil fires, repair infrastructure and instill order — and that troops would perform these jobs “initially and early and quickly.”
He promised that America has no imperial design on the oil-rich nation.
Though not in detail, the U.S. government has revealed some of its plans. Obviously, as Feith told the Senate, the military would seize and destroy any weapons of mass destruction. The rest, though, may be trickier.
In January, Bush created a postwar planning mechanism: the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, led by Jay Garner, a retired lieutenant general who once headed the U.S. Army Space and Strategic Defense Command.
The office is made up of representatives of a variety of government departments, including Defense, State and Treasury. They, along with the CIA, would work with the military’s Central Command and its head, Franks. Franks then, in a sense, becomes the new MacArthur.
The office would also work with the United Nations and humanitarian agencies.
“There’s more than a vision,” said a U.S. government official familiar with the plan. “There’s real planning and allocation of resources. There’s a lot of concrete actions being taken, and this is moving along expeditiously.”
Initially, the group would support Franks and his troops in the distribution of aid. Then it would move on to rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure. Finally, it would handle transition to civilian government.
“In the broad sense, that’s kind of the plan for a postwar Iraq,” said the official, speaking on background.
However, he hesitated to compare the plan with postwar Japan. He also said he could not comment on reports that the State Department had pushed for a longer-term transition, while the Pentagon merely wants to fight its war and hand over the reins to civilians.
Staying for any length, some fear, would feed Arab angst that the United States is becoming an imperial power. That impression, too, could make things hairy for troops.
Otfried Nassauer, director of the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security, warned that the war on terrorism could suffer following an invasion — Arab and Muslim nations may fail to cooperate with U.S. authorities. And then there are the Europeans.
“They don’t like the idea of the U.S. fighting the wars, and Europe doesn’t like then paying for the nation-building,” Nassauer said. European Union leaders agreed Thursday to offer limited help in rebuilding Iraq. But the mood was reportedly chilly.
Now, France plans to veto any move by the United Nations to recognize a U.S.-installed government in Iraq. Russia plans to fight any U.N. move to retroactively justify the war in Iraq.
All this bickering results in more than hot air: Any half-hearted commitment from Europe would result in more work for U.S. soldiers. And even a short stay for troops after the war could be tumultuous if the fighting phase drags.
“If it’s all over with 2,000 bombs in 10 days, and not affecting the civilian population, it may be a totally different situation than one in which fighting happens inside cities for weeks,” Nassauer said.
For its part, the United States believes recent history is its vindicator. Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Kuwait are all countries whose Muslims were liberated by U.S. troops.
“The people are always better off,” the U.S. official said. “We liberate countries, we don’t occupy them. We help get people on their feet.”
Even this optimistic official, however, refused to speculate on what troops will find following war in Iraq. Will the masses shout “Death to Saddam,” or will they at some point challenge their liberators? Will it be flowers or bottles?
“We’ll see,” the official said. “We’ll try to clearly articulate for them a brighter future in a post-Saddam Iraq.”