The American Legion Magazine
July 2003
By Alan W. Dowd

As the war in Iraq wound down last spring, the Pentagon released a set of playing cards emblazoned with the faces of key members of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The cards are helping allied troops hunt down and capture the worst of the worst in Saddam’s inner circle. But they also serve as a symbolic reminder that the war was a gamble—and so is the peace that follows.

Has it paid off? That’s the $60-billion question—$60 billion is how much a three-year reconstruction of Iraq will cost,[1] not including the $79-billion price tag for the war itself. Of course, money isn’t the only thing we have been gambling in the Middle East. After the 1991 liberation of Kuwait, we bet that the Iraqi people would topple Saddam, that America’s presence in Saudi Arabia would be short and painless, that Saddam’s hunger for weapons of mass destruction could be curbed by UN resolutions.

That gamble cost us much more than a few billion dollars: Saddam stayed in power, which forced Washington to keep American troops in Saudi Arabia, which galvanized an obscure band of terrorists known as al Qaeda, which launched the attacks of September 11, which triggered the US war on terror, which led back to Iraq, which fragmented the international community. When viewed from this side of history, the events between August 1990 and March 2003 look like something out of a Greek tragedy—each decision fateful, each step leading inexorably to the very thing we hoped to prevent.

After playing it safe for a decade, Washington is gambling on a bold, new vision to turn tragedy into triumph in the Middle East.

Waging Peace

Thanks to the nature of Gen. Tommy Franks’ military campaign, the most ambitious nation-building effort since MacArthur governed Japan may not be as difficult as some predicted. Even so, it’s not going to be easy.

Iraq’s infrastructure wasn’t flattened by years of carpet-bombing or a long siege. Instead, Franks’ war of decapitation destroyed Saddam’s Baathist regime without damaging the rest of Iraq, sparing most bridges, roads, dams, electro-power grids and oil wells. As Marine Col. Mike Marletto explained in a New York Times interview, Iraqi engineers say the damage from the 1991 war was far worse than that of the 2003 war.[2] This has enabled the allies to focus on restoring services rather than rebuilding mountains of infrastructure.

Less than a week after the liberation of Baghdad, hundreds of Iraqis turned out for a job fair in the Iraqi capital. Six days after they toppled the statues in Baghdad, Iraqis formed city councils in Karbala and Basrah. And by Day Seven of life after Saddam, joint US-Iraqi teams were patrolling the streets of major Iraqi cities.

These are hopeful signs. However, as we have seen since the fall of Baghdad, Iraq’s honeymoon with America was brief. Given the latent resentment among many Iraqis and the flow of foreign fighters and agitators into Iraq, the threat of terrorist and guerilla activity will loom as long as US forces are controlling the country. Hence, the United States could lose more troops keeping the peace than waging the war. Barely 120 US troops were killed in four weeks of combat. As the Marines learned in Beirut, a car bomb can take out twice as many in a split-second of peacekeeping.

Simply put, the danger has not past. There are untold thousands of weapons floating around Iraq—and equal numbers of angry Iraqis. According to Franks, there are some 3,000 sites where weapons of mass destruction might be hidden. Allied troops are tediously and gingerly investigating them at a rate of five to fifteen a day.[3]

But it’s not just Iraq’s land that needs to be scoured and decontaminated—so does Iraqi society and government. And that will take time in a country riven by ethnic divisions and disfigured by decades of Baathist brutality.

To get an idea of how deformed Iraq is, just consider the generation born and raised under Saddam’s rule: Hundreds of thousands of them were orphaned by his wars. Perhaps 350,000 of them died from malnutrition or lack of medical care. Saddam blamed the slow-motion genocide on sanctions, but the UN allowed Baghdad to trade oil for food and medicine. Cynically, Saddam shunted much of the food to the military and used black-market oil profits to build 48 new palaces.[4]

Death squads orphaned tens of thousands of Iraqi children. Saddam became their father and god: “With our souls and our blood,” they pledged at school, “we sacrifice for Saddam. We will sacrifice ourselves for you, O Saddam.”[5] Those children who refused to join Saddam’s youth paramilitary gangs were imprisoned by the hundreds. It was a regiment of the US Marines that set them free.[6]

One recalls the desperate words of a Soviet bureaucrat after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia: “And now we must try to produce good out of all that evil.”[7]

Retired Army Gen. Jay Garner and Paul Bremer’s interim administration is relying on what amounts to a three-phase process to do just that in Iraq. In Phase One, the allies divided Iraq into three administrative zones and some 26 metropolitan hubs, enabling them to employ different solutions to different problems. For instance, “de-Baathification” may require sticks in Tikrit, carrots in Mosul, and a little of both in Baghdad, while respecting Shiite religious sensitivities may be key to success in Najaf and Basrah.

In Phase Two, power will begin to shift to an interim government, run by Iraqis with the support of US experts. A new constitution will also be written. In these early stages, the allies must show in a tangible way—whether through public services, anti-corruption efforts, local rule, order—that life is better than before. And the Iraqis must show that they are willing and able to replace the old infrastructure of fear with the rule of law.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of post-Saddam courts that are being set up. One will deal with atrocities committed by Saddam’s regime before the 2003 war. It will be administered largely by Iraqi citizens, with the assistance of allied legal specialists. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States has trained dozens of Iraqi exiles to serve alongside current Iraqi citizens as judges in these special courts.[8]

The other postwar courts, administered by US military forces, are dealing with war crimes. Sadly, both of these courts will be busy. From chemical-weapons attacks and purges dating back to the 1980s to fake surrenders and POW executions committed as recently as spring 2003, Saddam and his henchmen spread their brutality around.

Ultimately, power will be transferred to a fully functioning representative government in Phase Three. With different parts of Iraq progressing at different rates, it’s difficult to determine which phase the allies are in or how long the process will take. Some observers say months; others say years. The safe bet is on a long, sometimes-messy occupation rather than a short and sweet one. As Franks puts it, “We will stay until there is a free government.”[9]

Battle Damage Assessment

Predictably, there’s disagreement over the degree to which the UN will be involved in standing up that government. Secretary of State Colin Powell talks about a “partnership” with the UN—but not a 50-50 partnership. The peace, like the war, is a US-led operation. Given the UN’s record in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Iraq, this is a good thing.

Most Americans knew the UN was a farce before March 2003. Any organization that would allow Libya to head a Human Rights Commission or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to chair a Disarmament Commission is simply not credible. But any pretense of UN legitimacy was shattered when the Security Council refused to enforce its own resolutions last March. As President George W. Bush put it, Iraq answered “a decade of UN demands with a decade of defiance.” And the UN answered with a collective shrug.

Why? It’s probably more complex than resentment of US power, as some suggest. Rather, it may come down to divergent worldviews. From the American and British perspective, the UN is a means to an end—a way to maintain peace and security. But according to the French, Germans and others, the UN is an end in and of itself. Hence, twelve years of fruitless resolutions and inspections are viewed as success in Paris and failure in Washington. A war to enforce those resolutions is accepted as a necessary evil in London, but rejected as both unnecessary and evil in Berlin. 

Of course, the divisions weren’t quarantined within the UN. Belgium, France and Germany split the NATO alliance by blocking US-led efforts to deploy defensive equipment to Turkey. Weeks later, Turkey returned the favor by denying Washington’s request to deploy the 4th Infantry Division on Iraq’s northern border. French President Jacques Chirac publicly threatened his East European counterparts for siding with Washington on Iraq. And on the eve of war, the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair blasted Paris for rejecting a compromise UN resolution even before Baghdad rejected it.[10]

In so doing, the French pointed a loaded gun at the UN Security Council and poisoned the transatlantic waters. As Blair concludes, the consequences could range from “paralysis of the UN” to a “world in which there are rival poles of power—the US and its allies in one corner; France, Germany and Russia in the other.”[11]

Given their hostility to America’s military and economic strength, the French may never follow America to war. Given their history, the Germans may never follow anyone to war. While these nations don’t always behave like friends, the challenge now is to make sure they don’t behave like enemies. A new round of diplomatic or economic salvos will not improve the situation. As Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observes, “The world’s sole superpower doesn’t need to hold grudges.”[12] Instead, Washington should emphasize the positive, downplay the negative, and avoid situations and venues where differences can force a test of wills—all of which means US coalition-building will increasingly be conducted outside the UN. 

The Bush administration has proven it can carry and wield a big stick; now it must learn to speak softly, especially across the Atlantic. Surprisingly, it was after the Iraq war that US diplomats persuaded NATO to play a central part in stabilizing Afghanistan. The White House is repairing America’s relationship with Turkey—and for good reason. “It would be politically and strategically insane,” Kagan concludes, “to punish the only well-established Muslim democracy in the region.”[13] And thanks to some deft postwar diplomacy, most European leaders now favor a NATO peacekeeping role in Iraq. In fact, Italy is deploying some 3000 peacekeepers and police to Iraq.[14]

In a word, the war exposed deep divisions, but it also exposed strong bonds. The United States, Britain, Spain, Italy and most East European countries have effectively formed an alliance within the NATO alliance. Along with Australia and key Gulf states, these countries were actually drawn closer together by the war. And their support will be crucial as the war against terror and weapons of mass murder moves beyond Iraq.

Road to Damascus?

The next test is literally as close as next door. Syria provides funding and territory to Hizballah, Hamas and others. As the war crescendoed, Syria opened its doors to some of Saddam’s leftovers and sent volunteers across the border. Knowing Damascus could send far worse into postwar Iraq, Powell issued a terse warning to Syria’s rulers after the liberation: “They should review their actions and their behavior, not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria and weapons of mass destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity.”[15]

Syria’s response has been mixed. Although the terror camps are still open, Damascus has promised to cooperate on Iraq. During a meeting with Syrian leader Bashar Assad in Damascus, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) reported that Assad “will not harbor any war criminals and will expel any that are here.” Like Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf in 2001, perhaps Assad is changing his behavior to preserve his regime. The alternative is the fate of Saddam and the Taliban.

To the east, Iran has provided safe haven and safe passage to al Qaeda. Like Syria, Iran sent thousands of guerilla fighters across the Iraqi border during the war. And like Syria, it supports all the major purveyors of terror. Unlike Syria, Tehran is racing to build a nuclear bomb. According to John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, “In the aftermath of Iraq, dealing with the Iranian nuclear program will be of equal importance [to] dealing with the North Korean weapons program.”[16]

Finally, 15 of the 19 men who attacked the United States on September 11 were born and raised in Saudi Arabia. Many of them had their first taste of bin Laden’s poisoned brand of Islam in Saudi-financed schools where students are virtually indoctrinated to despise the West. These schools dot the Muslim world. And they are graphic evidence that the current Saudi regime is no friend to America, which is why America is quietly withdrawing from the land of Mecca and Medina, and thus beginning the next phase of the war on terror.

Blending the surprise and lethality of traditional warfare with the tension and stalemate of the Cold War, what lies ahead is something altogether different—a colder, harsher strain of conflict that will either reform or replace these regimes. America is well suited for this “colder war.” Since September 12, 2001, America has been on guard, alternately showing the clenched fist of war and the open hand of friendship. And now Washington is in a position to use both of these hands to reshape the Middle East.

Holding the Cards

“We have a new situation in the region,” a poker-faced Powell explained in April, “and we hope that all the nations in the region will now review their past practices and behavior.”[17] He’s deliberately vague about what will happen if they do not.

The critics say this is a risky policy, and they’re right. But it’s no riskier than trying to contain Iraq by occupying Saudi Arabia—the gamble we took in 1991.

*Cover story

[1] Neil King, “The race to rebuild Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2003.
[2] IAN FISHER, From Power Grid to Schools, Rebuilding a Broken Nation,” NY Times, April 20, 2003
[3] Tim Reid, “US tells Syria to co-operate or risk conflict,” April 14, 2003, The Times of London.
[4] Chris Suellentrop, “Are 1 Million Children Dying in Iraq?” Slate, October 9, 2001
[5] David Ottaway, “In bid to shape postwar Iraq, US goes by the schoolbook,” NYTimes, April 6, 2003.
[6] Agence France Presse, “Jailed Iraqi children run free as Marines roll into Baghdad suburbs,” April 8, 2003.
[7] Martin Malia, “The Yeltsin Revolution,” Comparative Politics 1993, c.1993, p.158.
[8] Council on Foreign Relations, “Iraq: What's the U.S. Plan for Postwar Justice?” NY Times, April 8, 2003.
[9] Franks statement, April 11, 2003
[10] Labour.org.uk, “No one is working harder than Tony Blair for a second UN resolution,” 13 March 2003
[11] Blair, 18 March 2003.
[12] Kagan, “Resisting superpowerful temptations,” Washington Post, April 9, 2003.
[13] Kagan.
[14] See Wall Street Journal, International Section, April 17, 2003.
[15] Kathy A. Gambrell, “White House urges Syria to cooperate,” Washington Times, April 14, 2003.
[16] Tim Johnson, “After Iraq, Bush to halt Iran nuke program,” Knight-Ridder, Mar. 31, 2003.
[17] Gambrell.