The images of impassioned Iraqis taking sledgehammers to a statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad flooded the airwaves on Wednesday. Meanwhile, headlines worldwide proclaimed that Hussein’s Baghdad had fallen. But the statue’s destruction—which U.S. marines, using a cable fixed to a tank, eventually helped to orchestrate—hardly indicates the dawning of a new age of democracy. An Iraqi reenactment of the fall of the Berlin Wall, this was not. As British journalist James Bays told the Washington Post, “Total control has been replaced by sheer anarchy.” Whether America can justify its self-proclaimed title of “liberator” depends upon what kind of liberation eventually emerges from the chaos.
It is not surprising that the Iraqi people are happy to see Saddam go. But the real work begins now. In interview after interview, a disturbingly large number of Iraqis have expressed more ambivalence, if not militant opposition, to the U.S. than hostility toward Saddam. Yet the plans for reconstruction—what little has been released of them—suggest the United States will not be leaving anytime soon.
Indeed, Phase Two will resemble neither democracy nor self-governance—at least for a while. The Bush administration plans to immediately install Retired U.S. Army Gen. Jay Garner as “interim transitional civil administrator” for an undisclosed and indefinite length of time, and in the interim he will continue to report to U.S. Central Command. Garner will play a variety of temporary roles—coordinating humanitarian efforts, making sure the oil wells begin pumping again and ferreting out hidden Republican Guard fighters. But it is unclear what role he will play in the long-term administration of Iraq and reconstruction of its infrastructure. Indeed reports surfaced back in February that shortly after Garner secured the country, an American civilian leader—yet unspecified—would take up the task of rebuilding and subjecting the country to “de-Baathification,” or stripping Iraq of all remnants of Saddam’s regime. This American leader will, we have been assured, be “advised” by a group of Iraqi civilians, and it is heartening to know at least some efforts will be taken to listen to the Iraqi public. But without any accountability to the citizens of Iraq this American regime will be no more than a pantomime of democracy.
The first post-Hussein regime then is more likely to resemble an American occupying force than a democratic administration. And as reports out of Baghdad since Wednesday have revealed, policing the streets, hunting down loyalists and putting an end to the looting will be America’s first order of business. Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect the mechanisms for democratic self-rule to be installed instantly. Hussein’s centralized regime, a decade of sanctions and now weeks of bombing campaigns have left Iraq in a humanitarian and infrastructural crisis. Now that war on Bush’s terms is a reality—quickly becoming a done deal—it is no longer useful to consider better alternatives to an American occupation. The more productive question we must ask today is what negative consequences our occupation might entail, if carried out the wrong way.
First, an American occupation of Iraq could potentially turn into a focal point for the already high levels of anti-American sentiment across of the Middle East. America could quickly have an Iraqi “West Bank” on its hands. Terrorist extremist groups from within the region and elsewhere in the Arab world will have a tremendous new determination. And if Bush is prepared to handle its occupied territories in any way similar to the way Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has handled his, the U.S. may only be adding fuel to the fire—and a lot of it.
Second, a unilateral U.S. occupation could conceivably seal the end of America’s relationship with the U.N.—if reconciliation even remains possible. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was reportedly pressuring Bush to go the multilateral route in rebuilding Iraq, but Wednesday Bush announced the “vital role” the U.N. will play in postwar Iraq will be limited to the distribution of food, aid and medicine. Leaving the U.N. out of the loop could have disastrous consequences for the future of the international community. While admittedly France and Russia have their own economic self-interest in mind concerning postwar Iraq, the same arguments can be hurled against the U.S., whose corporations stand to profit considerably from postwar oil production—not to mention the strategic interest the U.S. stands to gain in prying open the door to OPEC. It is at times like these, when discordant national interests butt heads, that the survival of the U.N. is most tenuous—and the U.S. ought to do more than give lip service to the virtues of collective action if it truly hopes to ensure the organization’s survival.
Third, disarming Iraq may now prove more complicated, more dangerous—and suddenly even more imperative. The toppling of Hussein’s regime was supposed to make the world a safer place, yet Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction have not materialized. If they exist—and I will not venture to suppose that they don’t—what is to stop them now from ending up in the hands of terrorists, who prior to Hussein’s removal remained at cross-purposes to the regime’s stated goals? Without the necessary, updated intelligence as to the whereabouts of the weapons, disarming Iraq may quickly turn into a more problematic project of disarming a multitude of terrorist cells across the region. Sadly this is one matter it may be too late to change.
These three considerations will undoubtedly handicap the immediate postwar regime, making it exceedingly difficult for democracy to flourish. To be sure, the consequences of occupation could also be none of these things. In time a successful transition from American interim rule to stable, democratic self-governance may prove possible. Indeed, the hope is the Iraqi people will truly be better off in the very near future, but unfortunately just as many uncertainties—if not more—exist today than before the outbreak of war. Whether liberation of the Iraqi people is truly on the horizon as a result of America’s military victories—only time will tell.
Benjamin J. Toff ’05, an associate editorial chair of The Crimson, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.