In its effort to garner domestic and international support for a military campaign to disarm Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein's regime, the Bush administration has promised to bring democracy into the country and strategically transform the whole region. President Bush and his senior aides note that liberating Baghdad would usher in a peaceful, democratic dawn in Iraq that would spill over into other authoritarian Arab states. It is a tall and ambitious order for the Middle East. But as America moves closer to war with Iraq, the policy debates have focused on procedural issues, not on the internal conditions in Iraq that will determine the likelihood of a peaceful, democratic state after Hussein's departure.
Iraq's fragmented society and blood-soaked political history should make anyone wary of predicting the swift creation of a viable democracy there. The U.S. establishment does not seem to appreciate how deeply entrenched are sectarian, tribal and ethnic loyalties and how complex would be the job of reconnecting Iraqi communities, estranged from one another by decades of divisive official policies.
Iraq always has been difficult to manage and govern. Hastily glued together by Britain in the 1920s to serve its imperial interests, it was placed under the Hashemite monarchy, brought from nearby Hijaz (today's Saudi Arabia), which lacked public legitimacy because of its close ties with colonial Britain and its narrow social base of support. The Hashemites were detached from everyday life; state and society remained separate. Reliance on the army for its hold on power meant that it was only a matter of time before "the man on horseback" would overthrow the monarchy and rule Iraq with an iron fist. Ambitious army officers were in a hurry to do away with the old order and to remake Iraq in their own image: hierarchical, rigid and authoritarian.
Abdul Karim Qasim's brutal 1958 coup inaugurated a new militaristic era in Iraq and sowed the seeds of perpetual power struggles and bloodshed. Between 1958 and 1968, army officers turned their guns against one another and terrorized Iraqis into submission. Their rivalry, along nationalist-communist lines, mirrored that of Iraqi society and was resolved mostly by physical elimination and exclusion. The mentality of the mob prevailed and both groups committed atrocities and massacres that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of activists and innocent civilians. Iraq became the most violent and volatile country in the region.
Mohamed Heikal, an astute observer of Arab politics, has asserted: "Iraq has always been a border state between civilizations and a place where empires collided and armies clashed. Violence has become ingrained in the Iraqi character."
The bloody upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s transformed Iraq from a semi-constitutional state into a totalitarian one. When the Baathists took over in 1968, they aimed at consolidating their control over society and making Iraq a regional power to be reckoned with. They used blood, iron and oil to enforce their authority. Dissent was forbidden and opponents were summarily executed. By the time Hussein seized control in 1979, the security state was close to swallowing civil society. After the fall of the shah of Iran, the new sultan in Baghdad showed that his political ambitions transcended Iraq. Hussein dreamed of becoming the unchallenged sheriff of the Persian Gulf and the leader of the Arab world. He plunged Iraq into two devastating wars in the Gulf that cost the country hundreds of thousands of human casualties and hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars.
Iraqis, monitored and oppressed since 1958, have lost faith in the political system and turned inward to the safe harbor of tribalism and religious and ethnic factionalism. Every community -- Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites -- fends for itself and has built an "iron wall" to shield its members. Civil society has been crushed and the middle class has been decimated, thanks mainly to the U.N.-led sanctions since 1991. The building blocks and institutions necessary for a functioning polity, let alone a democracy, do not exist. The tragedy of Iraqi politics, and Arab politics in general, is that both the ruling elite and the dominant opposition are anti-liberal and anti-democratic. Society is deeply scarred and its foundations of trust are frayed to the breaking point. Subversion and plotting have replaced natural political processes as the means to obtain power.
If the United States attacks Iraq, Saddam Hussein's regime probably will crumble much faster than expected. He has alienated most social groups, including important elements within his own Takriti clan. But there will likely be resistance from the security forces, the Republican Guards and some Sunni tribes. These forces will fight because their very survival is at stake -- unless the Bush administration provides them with credible assurances of safety.
The United States should have no illusion about either the costs of urban warfare, particularly on Iraqi civilians, or the herculean task of reconstructing a post-Hussein Iraq. A likely scenario is that a U.S. military invasion would result in a civilian massacre. Tribal revenge would probably be exacted, complicating the process of reconciliation and healing. A slaughter in Baghdad would surely deepen mistrust between the ruling Sunni community on the one hand and the Shiites and Kurds on the other.
Initially, a military liberation of Baghdad could unleash joy in the streets of Iraq. But unless the United States is willing to forcefully police the new order for many years to come, Iraq will fracture and descend into chaos, destabilizing its neighbors and giving rise to new jihad groups that will attack Americans. Not only will there be no democracy in Iraq but U.S. vital interests will be endangered.www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A57518-2002Oct7E-mail this article