- Talk in Washington for the past several weeks on when
and how to take out Saddam Hussein has been conducted at a level of almost
childish faith in the utility of regime change as a way of disposing of
the country's enemies and creating friendly governments. In the groups
and individuals close around the President, this action has taken on an
urgency that is wholly out of step with official Washington's willingness
to endure Saddam's presence in Baghdad for several decades. The premise
of promoters in the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the Defense
Policy Board (DPB), and other enthusiasts is that taking out Saddam will
usher in a new era of tranquility in the Middle East. A generous menu
of options being considered by the promoters is now public, thanks to a
wholly new standard of Washington 'leaking', but it is hard to tell whether
the leaks are trial balloons, pre-emptive policy thrusts, power grabs for
the promoting groups, or inept official information management. Nonetheless,
it is possible to examine in depth the tragic flaws in the idea of a pre-emptive
regime change in Iraq, even though any real planning is probably being
closely held among the true believers.
Why is Saddam Still Around?
The first question--what will be the flavor of Iraqi leadership after Saddam--if
raised at all, has gone wholly-unanswered. One possible answer is to cobble
together a group of exiles who appear to have in common mainly the fact
that they were out of step, out of favor, and out of patience enough to
leave. The second question--what keeps Saddam in power--if raised, appears
to have focused on the wrong answer. Most commonly one hears that Saddam
is a ruthless SOB who brooks no opposition and who stifles the fortunes
and/or the breath of any promising candidate for succession. That indeed
is a cardinal rule for staying on top as a dictator, but Saddam neither
created this model nor is he alone in following it.
Another answer that needs careful thought is simply that Saddam is still
around because he has been able to maintain various coalitions of the elites.
Saddam's principal chips for doing that have being money, power and influence,
to say nothing, in some cases, of life itself.
Because their futures are at stake, these elites are likely to lead, or
at least finance, a street-by- street battle for Baghdad, and unless they
also are removed or leave in any Saddam exodus, any cluster of exiles will
have to reckon with them. The results of the bargaining will certainly
bode ill for the expectations of the regime changers. To know how badly
that often works, one need only review British experience in Iraq.
One of the problems of Iraq, partly due to Saddam, is that the country
is caught in a time warp. Over a long period, rule by fiat creates habits
of mind and behavior that do not change quickly or uniformly. While Saddam
did not invent the problems of the Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, the Kurds,
and the Turkmen in Iraq, he did not try to build cohesion by any means
other than brute force. Planting the seed of democracy and throwing water
on it wonât do much without firm guidance and education, all of which
take years of patient effort.
What Are The Ground Rules?
What is the set of ground rules the United States may be forging by taking
out the leadership of a nation merely because US officials do not like
it, do not trust it, fear its warlike capabilities and future decisions,
or think it has Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs)? The roster of countries
that have or seek such weapons easily exceeds twenty. Is the plan to go
after all of them? If the decision is to go after them, will it make any
difference what form of government and leadership they have, or will the
sole driver be suspicion of production and/or possession of WMDs?
At the end of World War II, mainly the former colonial powers either revalidated
or created our present system of nation states. That system has numerous
problems, but it has served the world reasonably well. This system depended
heavily on two factors: The first was delineation, codification and international
recognition of boundaries around each state. Much of the world map was
already drawn, but during the immediate post-war decades, the bulk of the
world's colonial real estate was allotted, mainly to the people who lived
in specific pieces of it. Israel was an exception to this rule. The territories
of nation states that we now know and largely accept emerged from this
process. The second factor, an ancient principle of statehood, was general
agreement among nations that the people within each nation state had the
final word on who ruled them and how. The United States and others have
made many attempts to interfere, but the basic rule remains that the choices
of form of government and leadership are strictly local options.
The Prime Sources of Trouble
A factor that was not dealt with in post war mapmaking was the rich array
of out-groups and ethnic, religious and cultural enclaves that existed
in many of the resultant nation states. The disposition, assimilation,
exclusion, or otherwise of those groups was left to the leadership of each
state. Some pungent liquors, e.g., Afghanistan with at least five contending
tribal groups and warlords, remain with us. Bosnia, or the whole remnant
of Post-World War II Yugoslavia is another case in point. A consensus procedure
that is well short of democratic, as we define it, has been the rule among
these tribal groups and many others for millennia.
The effect of the process has been that, although the world is largely
free of wars between nations, there are many countries that are not internally
at peace. A review of data in US Department of State annual reports shows
that groups in at least 20 countries seek separation from their parent
states. Groups in at least 35-40 additional countries are bent on overthrowing
current regimes. That is close to a third of all present nation states.
Those countries, for better or worse, represent the slow fuse that can
explode any plan for pre-emptive regime change. Getting individual tribes
or ethnic groups to apply some democratic leadership selection procedure
is not nearly as difficult as getting the tribes and factions within present
state bounds to work together in some common regime, democratic or not.
The recent tendency of Sub-Sahara African countries to break up along tribal
lines is one manifestation of the difficulty.
How potentially explosive the situation can be was displayed suddenly and
graphically with the fall of the Soviet Union. The nationalities of the
former Union flew the coop as rapidly as possible, and some such as the
Chechens are still trying.
The Need For Reform
The widespread tendencies for states to splinter indicate that globally
the system of nation states is unstable and in need of reform. In the late
fifties and sixties, the United States thought it could deal with the problems
of poverty and non-participation, and help bring the out-groups and enclaves
into national systems by promoting rapid economic development. That did
not work because we had neither the correct models nor the will to involve
ourselves enough to get it done. Our own transformation as a society had
taken almost two centuries, but we expected instant results in any country
we assisted. That did not happen. Governments were reluctant to address
the out-group problems, and we did not wish to intervene. Some people got
rich, most stayed poor or got poorer, the out-groups advanced hardly at
all, and we had inadequate stamina for it. We ended up with our present
approach: try to feed the poorest of the poor, ignore development, and
don't address the out-group problems.
No better formula has been put forward. We used the Marshall Plan and like
programs to restore Western Europe and Japan, but we were totally at sea
on how to promote major social transformations in much of the developing
world, and we still are. The UN predicts dire conditions for the planet
by mid-century if the wealthy nations do not do a better job in the years
ahead, but it will be tough, because population may reach 9 billion by
On political reform, we are equally at sea. The best tools we have evolved
are evolutionary processes of change, not precipitate transformations of
oligarchic nations such as Iraq into modern states. The key task we have
been unable to perform well, or reliably, is selection/identification of
the right people. The task is to find capable people who are in for the
long haul, have a concept of national interest, genuinely want their nations
to grow and prosper, and are not mere influence peddlers and power seekers.
Here, whether we exercised choice directly or indirectly, we repeatedly
have used our own criteria of selection. Few of the regime changes that
occurred were to our liking. Some durable ones were anything but likeable.
The US Leadership Problem
With respect to the pending Iraqi decisions, in the history of the United
States it has always been possible that core leadership could operate for
indefinite periods without consulting anybody outside the inner circle.
In the media rich world of today, one has to be a good deal more focused
and of stronger will to take that course, because the noise level goes
up rapidly, and with the combination of print and electronic media plus
the internet, every corner will be heard from. Thus, several groups are
watching and commenting upon the small cluster of Iraq decision makers.
The problem is that there appears to exist no counterweight to a group
inside and close to the White House who, following the leaders of the Program
for the New American Century and the Defense Policy Board, have chosen
to carry out a coup and leave the rest of the country, including the Congress,
on the sidelines while they play out their own scenarios on how the world
should be run.
The Iraq take-down promoters cite polls showing wide public interest in
Saddam Hussein, but it pays to be skeptical of these polls. The media
have made Saddam into a popular villain. That notoriety is enhanced by
the attention Washington leaders give him. The concern about Saddam is
thus more a reflection of hit count or name drop frequency than it is of
any hard knowledge of how real or imminent a threat Saddam may represent
to American interests. PNAC and other promoters of a war against Iraq
count on this kind of superficial support to justify their venture, and
their use of such polls misleads the President. The moment Americans die
in the encounter, however, that support will evaporate.
The regime changers around the President, momentarily we hope, also have
forgotten the complex, global, interdependent system we thrive on. "Thrive
on" is the key term, because our enormous economic power is locked
into that system. If it works, we continue to grow and prosper. If it
doesn't, we falter. We may not hurt as much as others, but the bloom goes
off the rose quickly if the rest of this global system flounders. We can
try to tell this system how to behave, but we do not have enough people
in enough places with enough experience, judgment and influence to do that
job. We cannot succeed as an island in a sea of hostility
To our detriment, this group of leaders actually violates a critical principle
of American governance: That we will change leadership regularly and introduce
new blood. What we are watching, with the exception of George W. Bush,
who is not in control of this group, is a cabal of old blood that is frozen
on a deadly course. Members of this group have been in government so often
and at such high levels that they have acquired that true arrogance of
power which our system was designed to prevent. At one point, with George
W. Bush so obviously inexperienced in foreign affairs, it looked comforting
to have the old hands on board. On their present courses, we may or may
not live to regret it.
Regime Change Versus Terrorism
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is seeking allies to help conduct the
war on terrorism, and there are clear signs that the plan to overthrow
Saddam works against it. As part of this effort, US officials are promising
heads of government that if they join in the war against terrorism Washington
will look the other way on human rights violations. With such promises
the US acquires allies in the short run.
In the long run, however, the situation is a Catch 22. In most cases, it
is the out-groups, not the governments, who are the sources of terrorism,
and cooperation with the US on terrorism means not only working against
Al Qaeda, but also against local potential recruits. Thus, a terrorism
generator has been revived or left untended in each country where US officials
have ever so quietly indicated that it is OK to repress the out-groups.
As the war on terrorism progresses, out-group resentment and desire to
spin off from various parent states will increase. As discussed below,
some out-group problems might be solved in an Iraqi regime change. However,
hardly any government in the Middle East is likely to be pleased by deals
with Iraqi out-groups that significantly alter the map of two or three
In the forty or more failed or failing states, each has problems of leadership,
and virtually all have out-groups who either have access to or close friends
in other countries, including the US and Europe. If the governments of
the failed and failing states come down hard on their out-groups in support
of the war on terrorism, the task of controlling outbreaks will grow.
Because none of these groups has enough members to take on a government
unaided, alliances of Al Qaeda type will proliferate. The only weapon
readily available to them is some form of terrorism. Unfortunately, the
most attention-getting form of terrorism is attacks on civilian targets.
As the Israeli have shown conclusively in the West Bank and Gaza, heavy-handed
and powerful military operations cannot prevent the attack of even a 17
year old girl carrying explosives. We are facing similar limitations in
Afghanistan. In short, it is not in our interest to continue generating
new sources of terrorism by condoning repressive tactics of other governments.
We cannot stop all the products of these human failures. That we will
fail miserably to stop terrorists everywhere, all the time, is virtually
certain. In this environment, the costs of leaving Iraq alone pale by
comparison to the potential effects of going ahead.
What About Negotiation?
Over time, Saddam has been astute about finding the lines he should not
cross. If you listen to the Iraqi Ambassador to the UN, the Iraqis are
looking and sounding like they want to talk, perhaps even seriously to
negotiate. If that is so, then, if the hardliners stop now, we can say
our bluff worked, that threats sometimes do the trick. No blood has been
spilled. If we want that, inspectors can be put back to work. With their
findings, we may move a few millimeters closer to knowing whether Saddam
actually has weapons of mass destruction. But we will have avoided turning
the region into a quagmire.
Saudi Arabia then takes center stage. A new voice in the person of Crown
Prince Abdullah entered the Middle East debate in March, putting on the
table a clear proposal for peace in Palestine. However, rather than give
the Saudis credit for knowing what their true interests are, our hardliners,
apparently led by leaders of the Program for the New American Century and
the Defense Policy Board, have decided that the Saudis must do things our
way and give us what we want or they become ãthe enemyä. Given
what was said earlier about the experience and the rank of the key players,
this outcome makes no sense. It may be exhilarating to take on the center
of Islam in a public dispute over intelligence sharing. However, today
there are over one billion Muslims, and the policy maker who invites one
out of every six people on the planet to become our enemy cannot be our
The law of large numbers intervenes soberly to work against us. In addition
to a billion Muslims, there are four and two-thirds billion other people
out there who are deeply interested in what we do, look positively most
of the time on relations with us, but who are not wedded to what we do.
With 3 billion more people on the planet by 2050, the numbers will be even
more skewed. Perhaps we can manage significant parts of our defense problem
with high tech, long reach, high performance, standoff weaponry, but we
cannot beat the human numbers problem. There are simply more people in
more places than we currently have, or are ever likely to have trained
human resources or technical assets to watch. We have chopped away at
our official offshore presence in so many places that we barely have traction
in many countries.
If we enter the tense, unfriendly world that will exist after an attack
on Iraq, and even more if we follow with attacks on Syria, Sudan and a
few other chosen culprit states, we simply do not have the resources to
watch our backs in all the places where they will be exposed. Wealthy and
powerful we may be. Omnipotent and omnipresent we are not. We need all
the help we can get from friendly governments and well-disposed people.
The Iraqi Case Model
The case model for unraveling the nation state system is Iraq itself.
It contains the common regional Islamic puzzle of how to sort Sunni and
Shia Muslims and deal with their respective extremists. Iraq's major ethnic/cultural
problems center, however, on the northwestern regions inhabited by Turkmen,
Kurds and Shi'a Muslims. Baghdad, for obvious reason÷oil and national
territory--has resisted any concessions to any of these groups for at least
half a century. Various political factions in Baghdad may argue over whether
a new Iraqi government will be right, center, or left, but the Turkmen
and the Kurds want their own separate pieces of territory no matter how
things turn out in Baghdad.
As between the Turkmen and the Kurds, the lines are drawn solidly around
the city of Kirkuk, which each wants exclusively for both traditional ethnic
reasons and for its location in Iraqâs oldest but still highly productive
oil fields. Both Iran and Turkey also get involved in this dispute. Iraqi
concessions to the Turkmen may be greeted with favor by Ankara, but not
concessions to the Kurds whose people seek both Turkish and Iraqi territory,
and pressures would mount for separation. Iran will be concerned about
what happens to the Shiite Muslims who are mainly ethnic Iranians. The
Kurdish Workers Party, PKK has been a major terrorist threat to Turkey,
but reached an agreement with Ankara after its leader, Ocalan, who was
captured in 1999, launched a peace initiative in 2000. Most members of
the group are in Iraq. Any peace initiative would come apart if the Iraqi
settlement went against the Kurds.
Multiply this model with varying orders of grievance by 40 or so. What
happens in each case will be driven by local factors. The world's current
hotspots, along with the great majority of its international terrorism-generating
disputes, center on areas of the globe where boundary drawing was inept,
insensitive, uncaring, or a matter of indifference to the powers whose
leaders drew the up. The resulting elites in those countries have done
nothing about this problem, because the reigning concept of statehood says
that there is no give on boundaries or territory. The established rule
of statehood literally cements these conflicts in time and place. The
unheeded grievances of out-groups make the situations potentially explosive.
The reform of the nation state system is overdue, but little if any thought
has been given to how to do it. With respect to Iraq, the problem presents
a deal-killing quandary for Washington's regime changers. If they ignore
the clamor of the Turkmen and the Kurds, the Iraqi succession outcome will
only make Iraqâs political situation unstable, even volatile. If
the regime changers make territorial concessions to either the Turkmen
or the Kurds or both, the stage is set for statehood, as we now know it,
to unravel anywhere out-groups can make it happen.
What Is In It For Us?
The Iraq road signs caution that we need to weigh carefully what will result
from a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, versus what we will retain if we desist.
If we attack and win, we will have the chance to change the regime. But
in what fashion or what degree is presently unclear. Any post-Hussein
government has an uncertain future. If installed by us the new regime's
chances are bleak, because considerable hostility will go with our involvement.
Moreover, it is doubtful we will stick around long enough to assure successful
transition. We get the chance to terminate as yet unknown weapons programs,
but with reams of reports on this subject, we apparently still do not know
how important that will be. We alienate significant numbers of people
and their governments. We make enemies of friendly Arab governments. The
Saudis are among them, with power to hurt, as shown by recent large withdrawals
from US banks.
On the other hand, if we desist, we save enormous resources, starting with
a substantial number of American lives. We avoid alienating, at least
for a time, many friendly governments. We avoid setting in motion the
decay of the nation state system that, with all its faults, is the best
global operating system weâve found so far because of its ability
to promote friendly dealings of different cultures across mutually accepted
We leave the growing problems of out-groups in failed and failing states
unresolved. That demands serious attention for the future, no matter what
we do in Iraq.
We end up having to put up with Saddam, but he has been around a while,
and he will go the way of all flesh. While neither he nor we can predict
the time and manner of that event, it would be best all around for Allah
to decide the outcome, not American hardliners and their supporters among
the Israeli and the Christian right.
Terrell E. Arnold is a Retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the United
States Department of State.