For the long haul

April 24, 2003|By Ronald Bruce St John

THREE YEARS after candidate George W. Bush scoffed at the notion of nation-building, President Bush is its leading proponent.

In a February address, the president outlined a hopeful vision of a free Iraq serving as a catalyst for peace in the Middle East. A month later, he made it clear that the objective in Iraq was more than just removing Saddam Hussein.

He emphasized in his televised March address America's determination to build a "prosperous and free" Iraq that would set an example for the Middle East of a "peaceful and self-governing nation."

There's no question that the president's goals are worthy. But it's worth asking how well he's thought them out. Iraq is an Arab Yugoslavia: a highly tribalized, artificial state drawn up by the British after World War I. Ethnic Kurds dominate in the north, Sunni Arabs in the center and Shiite Arabs in the south.

In a volatile political environment where communal strife was ever-present, a minority used oil revenues to ensure their dominance over the bulk of the Iraqi population.

Iraq's history since independence in 1932 from Britain has been one of intrigue, violence and factionalism. Mr. Hussein was a despotic, sadistic and tyrannical ruler. But his use of violence didn't mar Iraq's political system. It was the system. Iraq has no tradition or experience with civil society, democratic process or the rule of law.

Recent experience from Afghanistan to Cambodia suggests these core elements of a democratic political culture could take decades to develop and mature. The Bush administration's fuzzy vision of a postwar Iraq, as discussed in the "Future of Iraq Project" and outlined in the vaguely defined "Iraqi Interim Authority," which will assume responsibility from the military, demonstrates little understanding of the monumental task ahead.

Any talk of a unified, democratic Iraq today is an oxymoron.

To succeed, the United States must prepare for a long and costly nation-building exercise, one in which it must enlist allies to share the burden. Germany, Japan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia paid an estimated 80 percent of the cost of the Persian Gulf war.

Some prefer to call the administration's "coalition of the willing" the "coalition of the billing" because many of our partners were pressured or bribed into joining. Many of its members, such as Palau and Tonga, certainly aren't wallet states.

We need to recognize the coalition for what it is: mostly small states supporting the United States in hopes of winning favors. When it embarked upon Operation Iraqi Freedom, the United States had the support of the majority of the people in only one other country: Israel.

The Bush administration needs to come clean and start fashioning the coalition necessary to rebuild and democratize Iraq, and this can't be done on the cheap.

Removing Mr. Hussein from power and replacing him with a decent, accountable government, a potential model for the region, is worth doing. But not because he threatened the world with weapons of mass destruction or supported the war on terrorism.

Arab-Muslim states that increasingly turn out large numbers of disenchanted, disaffected and voiceless young people remain the more serious threat. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report made this clear. Authored by Arab intellectuals, this U.N. report warned of growing stagnation in Arab societies crippled by lack of political freedom, repression of women and isolation from the world of ideas.

These issues must be addressed in any plan to rebuild Iraq and leave in place a democratic government. The war's end will bring public impatience in the United States, intense international scrutiny and the parsimony of a Congress already facing a budget crisis.

If Washington is to succeed in the long haul, it needs the world's support. To get that support, the Bush administration must earn it by patching things up with long-term allies. We must stop denigrating Germany, bashing France and intimidating friendly states from Canada to Turkey. The more global support the United States generates for this tough task, the better chance we'll have of creating a democratic Iraq that can serve as an example for other states in the Middle East.

Ronald Bruce St John is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus. He has written extensively on Middle Eastern issues, including Libya and the United States: Two Centuries of Strife (Penn Press, 2002). He lives in Dunlap, Ill.

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