After Saddam Hussein: Then What?

As much as nations despise Iraq's villainous president, many fear a U.S. attack to get rid of him would do more harm than good - in Iraq, to its nervous neighbors, and beyond.

August 25, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

History is full of designated villains - from the German Kaiser Wilhelm of World War I to Tojo and Hitler of World War II to Khruschev and Fidel and Mao of the Cold War. In the war on terrorism, there was Col. Muammar el Kadafi, the Libyan leader a few years ago and more recently Osama bin Laden. And now, again, comes Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader whose ouster is demanded by the Bush administration ... or else.

Hussein deserves the tag. He has used poison gas on his citizens and is known for the bloody ruthlessness with which he deals with potential rivals for control of the apparatus of state. He sent thousands to slaughter during an eight-year war with his neighbor Iran and has shown contempt for international law.

Hussein played the role of villain a decade ago in the first Gulf War, and many think that was a more convincing portrayal: After all, he had just invaded a neighboring country, Kuwait. What he is up to now is a matter of conjecture - perhaps he has weapons of mass destruction, perhaps he has aided terrorists - but he is portrayed as such a villain that even such possibilities are used as a justification for possible warfare.

"It's not a new technique in war propaganda," says Rashid Khalidi, a Middle East expert at the University of Chicago, of the personal demonization process. "There was Tojo and the Kaiser, you can go back to Jeff Davis. It's not just us that does it, everybody does."

The presumption behind the process is that if the villain is removed - cut out like a cancerous tumor - the body politic will return to full health. This doesn't always work because sometimes the villain is only the public representative of a much deeper societal sickness.

The problem with the current proposed villainectomy is that no one is exactly sure if the patient - or the entire hospital, for that matter - can survive the operation.

Start with Iraq, which as ancient Mesopotamia was the cradle of Western civilization, home to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that nourished some of the earliest cultures known to history or archaeology. Its modern version was created by British cartographers, dividing up colonial spoils of the Middle East after World War I. Its throne was handed to King Faisal, a Hashemite from Saudi Arabia and a British ally in that war.

Ethnically, the country made little sense with Kurds in the north, Sunni Muslims in the middle and Shia Muslims to the south. But few colonial-era boundaries made much sense.

It was in 1958 that the Sunni-based Baathists - Arab socialists - came to power in a bloody coup that wiped out the Hashemite royalty, though one branch of the family still controls Jordan.

Hussein is the Baathist strongman who holds the disparate elements of his country together through sheer power, much as Tito did Yugoslavia, although far more ruthlessly. If he disappears, what would happen to the country?

"Iraq has become more stable as it has become more authoritarian," says Waleed Havbun, an assistant professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "The question is, if that authority is removed, what's going to keep Iraq together? There's no easy answer to that."

Khalidi says that is particularly worrisome to Iraq's neighbors. In Iran, he says, there would be pressure to aid their ethnic brethren, the Shia, which the Iranian government does not particularly want to do. Turkey would fear renewed difficulty with its population of Kurds should those in Iraq, freed from Hussein, reignite the quest for their own nation.

"What is going to prevent the situation from becoming a vortex or a vacuum, either of which has the possibility of bringing in the two powers next to Iraq, both of which are terrified of the prospect of the collapse of that regime," Khalidi says.

He argues that Iran's leaders would be trapped if there were chaos in Iraq: They would face pressure from within to go help the Shia population, but would fear that action would anger the Sunni-dominated Arab states.

In Turkey, Khalidi says, the military - historically the power behind the elected government - would probably assert itself to thwart any move by the Kurds.

"It doesn't make sense to try to bring democracy to 20 million Iraqis while you lose democracy for 60 million Turks," he says.

Add the potential for severe pressure put on governments in Jordan and Syria to react against a U.S. invasion of Iraq and many observers fear that removing Hussein might come with a big regional price tag.

It is a price that those arguing in favor of military action are willing to risk paying because, they say, the alternative is having weapons of mass destruction - biological, chemical, nuclear - in the hands of a madman.

But not all are convinced he has those weapons. Lou Cantori, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, doesn't think so.

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