IN A TENSE exchange this week in a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes asked Secretary of State James Baker what we might expect in war's aftermath if we decide to strike Iraq, as Baker put it, "suddenly, massively and decisively."
Instead of answering that trenchant question, Baker dissembled. But in a significant way the question, and the non-answer, represented history repeating itself. In 1962, when President John F. Kennedy secretly briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, J. William Fulbright, on the impending -- and soon-to-be disastrous -- Bay of Pigs operation aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro in Cuba, Fulbright asked, "My God, Mr. President, what if we win?"
Well, we can get a pretty good idea of what might lie in the aftermath of the conquest of Iraq by looking at a shocking episode that took place in Panama this week when American occupying forces baldly assumed the role of an internal police force and began arresting Panamanian nationals -- including some who were themselves Panama policemen. At least two Panamanians were was killed and several others were injured. Anyone watching the television film clips of the operation would have thought, if the sound had been turned down, that it was just another familiar scene of Israeli soldiers arresting Palestinians on the West Bank.
But make no mistake, Saddam Hussein is no Manuel Noriega, and Iraq is not Panama. If it takes 10,000 American troops to occupy Panama -- a supposedly "friendly" country -- then how many would it take to occupy Iraq -- a hostile country five times the size of Panama?
It goes without saying that in the aftermath of a "massive and decisive" strike, Iraq would have to be occupied for some indefinite period of time. We couldn't just walk away and leave Baghdad wallowing in rubble. Undoubtedly in such a circumstance the United States would strive to install a successor government to the Saddam regime which would be friendly to the United States.
Unfortunately, that, too, might turn out to be an example of history repeating itself. In 1953, a popular leader named Mohammed Mossadegh emerged in Iran, but the United States and other Western nations were alarmed that he might align himself with his powerful neighbor to the north, the Soviet Union. So instead of accepting the choice of the Iranian people, the United States and other Western powers conspired to overthrow Mossadegh. The covert CIA operation restored the Shah (which in Persian means "Caesar" or "Czar") to the "Peacock Throne" of Iran.
Supported by immense amounts of American military aid, the Shah for the next 25 years ruled by brute force; his secret police, known as SAVAK, were capable of acts that matched Saddam Hussein's cruelty case-for-case. I once saw a small boy whose arms had been cut off by the secret police because his father was a member of a political group opposed to the Shah. To this day I still feel a burning sense of indignation that my tax money probably bought the saws that rasped those innocent bones.
And in due course the rage of the Iranian people erupted violently and overthrew the Shah. The immense military arsenal that we had put in the hands of the Shah then fell, like an overripe fruit, into the hands of the Ayatollah Khomeini -- to the ultimate grief of both Americans and Iranians.
If we now take over Iraq by force as we took over Iran by stealth in 1953, it's likely the 400,000-plus troops now assigned to the Persian Gulf would be there for a long time, because no puppet regime we installed could possibly survive for a day without the support of the American military.
Moreover, it's a safe bet that during such an occupation Iraqi resistance in the form of terrorism would make the Palestinian rock-throwing against Israeli soldiers look child's play.
The nation deserves an answer to Senator Sarbanes' implicit question: "My God, Mr. President, what if we win?"