A turning point?

April 10, 2003|By Harlan Ullman

WASHINGTON -- Will April 9, 2003, go down in history as a date that changed the world?

Were the televised images instantly transmitted live around the world showing jubilant Iraqis tearing down a huge statue of Saddam Hussein and welcoming coalition forces in Baghdad signs of tectonic changes to come?

Is this, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested, a "tipping" or turning point? Not simply in the war to depose Mr. Hussein, but also in fundamentally altering the politics of the globe, much as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union in 1989?

Or is this merely understandable euphoria in both the White House and 10 Downing Street -- audible sighs of relief as Iraqis welcomed coalition forces as liberators -- evidence that freeing Iraq of a frightful dictator was justification enough for the war?

To use a more cynical interpretation, will these scenes turn out to have no more lasting significance than rescued U.S. students kissing American soil as they returned from Grenada in October 1983, saved by U.S. military forces who seized the tiny Caribbean island after a short-lived Marxist government?

Interestingly, media coverage of these extraordinary events in Baghdad varied greatly around the world.

In the United States, the sight of Iraqis embracing U.S. Marines was perceived as a great victory and a triumph of American values. Even the scaling of Mr. Hussein's statue by those Marines and the draping of "Old Glory" over it conjured up patriotic memories of Iwo Jima and Joe Rosenthal's memorialized photos of the planting of the colors on Mount Suribachi.

In Europe and the Arab world, these same scenes generally evoked negative reactions.

The Arab media largely described coalition forces as occupying troops or completely ignored covering what was happening in Baghdad. The BBC had more balanced reporting and cautioned patience before leaping to judgment.

So where are we? Was yesterday the equivalent of the Berlin Wall coming down or July 4, 1776, or some lesser day in history? And how will we know?

First, in military terms, while the war is not over, the performance of coalition forces has been extraordinary.

With a force about one-third the size of what it took to win Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and in two weeks less time, the coalition has destroyed or defeated Iraq's army and taken charge of much of the country. Fighting lies ahead. Yet the humanity and nobility in waging this war, with attention to keeping civilian casualties low and displays of great respect for the Iraqi people, are unprecedented.

Second, the battle was joined as a "rolling war." Rolling meant forces were simultaneously engaging in battle as others were deployed into the region. And, despite the critics, there were sufficient forces to win. The proof is about to be made irrefutable.

Third, now comes the difficult phase -- winning the peace. It is here where the world is likely to learn how monumental April 9 will prove to be, or not.

Coalition forces showed their war-fighting skills. Now the initial task will be fashioning some degree of law and order. The scenes of massive looting, if they continue, will seriously damage perceptions of liberation. While looting and other criminal activities are restrained, the gigantic humanitarian effort of feeding and caring for about 24 million Iraqis, ravaged by nearly a quarter of a century of Mr. Hussein's rule and whatever damage was done in the war, is crucial. Starvation, disease and other privations must be stopped before they start. A tall order indeed.

Establishing a civil society must follow. Virtually every service, from food and water distribution, electricity, medical care and transportation to putting in place a viable monetary system, must be restarted. This is not simple. It requires skilled people, the means to draw on Iraqi talent to staff both the government and private sector, money and patience. Past models, from postwar Europe and Japan to the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, do not fully fit. A new one must be created.

One step is to launch a major peace conference on postwar Iraq. Representatives from not only the coalition states and Iraq but also the United Nations, European Union, Arab world and other key powers, including nongovernmental organizations, will be needed. This conference should lay out both the metrics for evaluating the rebuilding of Iraq and receive contributions to that end.

If the peace is successful, then Mr. Rumsfeld's optimistic prediction of what this means can become a reality. If, however, the United States and its partners are not able to conduct the peace as skillfully as they fought the war, then the better angels will not win. That somber result cannot be allowed to happen.

Harlan Ullman is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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