“Regime change” — and then what?

Bush and his supporters speak earnestly about "democratizing Iraq." Many experts aren't nearly as optimistic.


"Regime change" -- and then what?

Entifadh Qambar is one of the very few people in Washington who sound positively bullish about the prospects of converting Iraq into a democracy.

“Iraq had a democratic system for 40 years, from the ’20s to late ’50s,” says Qambar, the director of the Washington office of the dissident-run Iraqi National Congress. “It was not a completely perfect democratic system, but it was comparable to the Western world. What holds Iraq together is ancient history. There’s no ethnic or religious animosity among Iraqis.” After toppling Saddam, Qambar says, “there’s no need to occupy Iraq. Iraq is already a nation with a functioning system.”

Never mind that Iraq was a monarchy from 1921 to 1958 and that divisions between Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldean Christians and Turkomans are well-documented. Qambar can afford to spin in the face of history: The neoconservatives who dominate the Department of Defense have designated INC’s leader, Ahmad Chalabi, as Saddam’s likely successor and the United States’ point guard in its attempt to turn Iraq into a democracy.

It’s a scenario that critics on both the left and the right (in Bush’s very own State Department, to be precise) find extremely implausible. As a new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says, “The increasingly popular idea in Washington that the United States, by toppling Saddam Hussein, can rapidly democratize Iraq and unleash a democratic tsunami in the Middle East is a dangerous fantasy.”

And yet it is the only postwar scenario receiving public consideration by the White House, and that’s raising serious concerns among Middle East experts about what good, ultimately, a war with Iraq will bring to the region.

The primary American argument for invading Iraq is one of prevention: removing Saddam from power before he can develop and use weapons of mass destruction. “In the short term, anything is better than what you’ve got there right now,” says Kenneth Allard, former special assistant to the Army’s chief of staff from 1987 to 1991 and an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s a very specific military objective here that requires some small amount of focus. Everything else is subordinate to that –humanitarian issues, how you bring the people together.”

But in selling the public on a war with Iraq, the Bush administration and its supporters have promoted it as an act of liberation. “The first and greatest benefit will come to the Iraqi men, women and children,” Bush said in his speech Monday. “The oppression of Kurds, of Assyrians, Turkomans, Shia, Sunnis and others will be lifted.”

In a speech at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center the same night, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the leading Democratic hawk on Iraq, said, “To me, post-Saddam Iraq is not a burden to be shunned but an opportunity to be relished. It can become a signal to the world, particularly the Islamic world, of our nation’s best intentions.” In an interview with the Financial Times in September, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice framed the upcoming war in terms of America’s commitment to the “democratization or the march of freedom in the Muslim world.”

Judging by the public remarks of influential neoconservative defense intellectuals, the operative theory in the Pentagon assumes that such democratization will be easy, starting with a simple and direct military overthrow. In an interview with liberal journalist David Corn, Richard Perle, the prominent hawk who chairs the advisory Defense Policy Board, estimated it will take a mere 40,000 troops. On the pro-war left, Kenneth M. Pollack, a former Iraq analyst at the CIA under Clinton, claims in his new book “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq” that “it would probably be closer to 300,000 (and might even exceed that number).”

The neocon theory also assumes that the Arab masses will welcome the “liberation” of their neighbor. Speaking along with Chalabi at conference at the American Enterprise Institute on Oct. 3, Perle said, “When it becomes clear that the end result of military action against the regime of Saddam Hussein will produce the opportunity, … the Arab world or most of it, and certainly most of the Muslim world, will consider that their honor and dignity has been restored by removing from among them a regime that they have every reason to despise along with the rest of us.”

This theory also assumes that the reconstruction of the country will be fairly painless and that the ascension of the INC will be welcomed by the Iraqi people. At the Oct. 3 conference, Perle said, “One of the more dangerous ideas that is already around is the idea that in the immediate post-Saddam situation, power will flow to Iraqis who are now in Iraq. One hears this notion about the Department of State  I think this is profoundly mistaken, and it is yet another example of the magnetic attraction of the status quo.”

“It is people like the people on this panel who will return to Iraq  to work together with those millions of Iraqis who have been the victims of Saddam Hussein,” he said.

Outside the neocon clique, this plan is considered preposterous.

“Total fantasy,” is how Sandra Mackey puts it. A journalist critical of an Iraq invasion in her book “The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein,” Mackey asserts that “it’s a sales job to the American public that invasion isn’t going to be any big deal in terms of keeping country together after Saddam is gone.” In an e-mail about the Carnegie report, Richard Murphy, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1981 to 1983, says, “I share the same doubts about the birth of democracy following the overthrow of Saddam.”

The problems with the neocon scenario are manifold. First, the INC, dominated by Sunni Muslims, has no constituency in Iraq or credibility with diplomats. Chalabi fled Jordan in 1989 after the government seized a bank he owned, charging he had embezzled millions. In January, the State Department suspended the INC’s funding because of accounting irregularities, and the group is now funded by their patrons in the Pentagon. “[Chalabi] is regarded by most people aside from his immediate circle as anywhere from dishonest to kind of a joke, says Chris Toensing, editor of Middle East Report magazine.

Mackey also disputes the notion that Iraqis are secretly pro-American. “These people who say Iraqis are going to welcome the United States, they don’t realize what Iraqis really feel about the United States,” Mackey says. “They really hold us responsible for sanctions over the last 12 years. They’re going to regard us as an occupying power.”

The whole idea that the Middle East can be rapidly democratized rests on a denial of rampant anti-Americanism — and assumes that friendly forces would prevail in a free election. But that notion is undermined by the fact that authoritarian regimes in the Middle East don’t just repress liberals — they also repress Islamists, which is part of the reason the U.S. turns a blind eye to strongmen, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. After all, if free and fair elections were held tomorrow in most Middle Eastern countries, Islamists would prevail in many of them, as they were set to in Algeria in 1992, prompting the government to cancel the election, ushering in a vicious civil war. Morocco’s Islamist Justice and Development Party tripled its strength in the last election. And a leader of Turkey’s most popular party, the Justice and Development Party, has been banned from upcoming elections because of his Islamist history.

Right now, America is betting that Iraq will be different — that its secular, cosmopolitan culture will trump the appeal of Islamism. Carole O’Leary, an Iraq specialist at American University who has made several long trips to the country over the past three decades, isn’t so sure. While the Shia were largely secular in the past, she says, “How do we know how secular they [have remained] since 1991, given the horrific suffering, depredation and human rights abuses perpetrated on the Shia since 1991?”

And there’s a further complication — though the Shia represent more than 60 percent of Iraq’s population, many doubt that the United States and its Sunni Arab allies could tolerate a Shia regime that might ally itself with the Shia who run Iran. “They’re the majority, and if there were democratic elections they would come out on top,” says O’Leary. “Nobody wants that. Their neighbors don’t want that, the United States doesn’t want that, but in my view, the fact that the Shia represent a majority has to be taken into consideration.”

It is, clearly, difficult to create a democracy that doesn’t empower the majority. Nevertheless, there is a way — a federal system, with Iraq’s various ethnic groups each represented in a central coalition government while ruling themselves with a degree of independence. This, in fact, is the structure favored by the Pentagon.

But any system that gives too much autonomy to the Kurds, who make up about a fifth of Iraq’s population, will anger Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the region, which has been fighting its own Kurdish separatists for years.

Doubts about the easy democratization of Iraq extend to Colin Powell’s State Department, which is known to hold the INC in contempt. Qambar complains bitterly about the State Department’s “reluctance” to back the group. “The State Department is not up to the level of the president’s ambitions and ideas about the future of Iraq,” he says. The State Department, meanwhile, has tried hard to marginalize Chalabi, convening working groups on the future of Iraq with competing dissident organizations.

This disarray in the administration helps explain why no one from the White House has yet put forward a thorough plan for reconstructing Iraq. “The administration has to put its house in order,” O’Leary says. “There’s neocons versus realists, Department of Defense versus State.” The Iraqi opposition, she says, is given “one set of instructions and orders from the State Department and another from the Pentagon civilian leadership. They’re not on same page.”

If the Iraqi National Congress doesn’t form the country’s new regime, who will? For all the administration’s talk of democracy in Iraq, many experts believe a more likely result will be the installation of another Sunni military government. This isn’t, obviously, a foregone conclusion, but any other outcome would probably require a massive commitment of troops over many years, which the White House has yet to commit to.

“Because no obvious leader is waiting in the wings and the exiled Iraqi opposition is chronically divided, Washington would have to provide the political and, most importantly, military and security infrastructure necessary for holding a new government together,” says the Carnegie Endowment report, written by Marina Ottaway, Thomas Carothers, Amy Hawthorne and Dan Brumberg, scholars who have written books about Middle East politics and the promotion of democracy abroad.

“In short, the United States would have to become engaged in nation building on a scale that would dwarf any other such effort since the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II. And it would have to stay engaged not just years, but decades, given the depth of change required to make Iraq into a democracy,” according to the report. “Thus far the Bush administration has given no indication that it is ready to commit to such a long-term, costly endeavor.”

After all, only a year after our overthrowing the Taliban, America is already backing away from its promise to rebuild Afghanistan. “It would help a lot of if [the government] committed serious resources in Afghanistan,” says Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Our reservations in Afghanistan have real implications for Iraq. We’re not expanding security beyond Kabul. We’re not sure how to promote stability. I don’t think our leaders see the tie between the two, but it’s there for the region to see.”

All this is why, outside neoconservative circles, there’s near unanimity that the most likely solution to a post-Saddam power vacuum is the installation of a slightly more pliant Sunni military dictator. “There’s a good likelihood [the new leader] will be some lieutenant colonel or colonel” from inside the country, says Bronson. Mackey disagrees with Bronson about regime change, which she says would be “a disastrous mistake,” but she agrees that if the United States does invade, there’s a “very big probability” that it will install another Sunni strongman.

Lou Cantori, an expert in military policies in the Middle East at the University of Maryland who has taught at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Marine Corps University, says this option makes the most sense militarily. “The minimalist scenario is to go in and replace one military person with another, which allows the United States to exit quickly and easily,” he says. “Given the realities of the country, the minimalist scenario is the most efficient and requires the least commitment of resources. Americans will have achieved their objective from their point of view and can claim victory and go home.”

Of course, it can be argued that a garden-variety dictator would be far preferable for most Iraqis than the lunatic they’re currently living under. “For many of us who support overthrow, we read about what goes on in Iraq on a day-to-day basis: children tortured in front of their parents, children encouraged to rat on their parents,” says Bronson. “Yes, it would be nice if we had a democratic Iraq, but if you can’t do that, you should still support regime change.”

O’Leary agrees — sort of. “Could I imagine a regime worse than Saddam for the people of Iraq? No,” she says. “Could I imagine one not threatening to the U.S. but equally bad to the Iraqi people? Yes.” She emphasizes that such an outcome isn’t inevitable; but, she says, “We damn well better have a plan for the day after, and that plan better involve identifying Iraqis on the inside who we can work with to prevent chaos.”

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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