Steve Sachs Duke


Thursday, April 10, 2003


Best-Case Scenario: I've been thinking recently about what the world would have been like had the U.S. and Britain not decided to go to war three weeks ago. Specifically, what would the chances have been for some type of democratic reform in Iraq?

The Guardian, a few weeks before war broke out, asked 48 different opponents of the war to suggest an alternative policy toward Iraq. A number of them, such as former Nasser adviser Mohamed Heikal, suggested that lifting the sanctions would have allowed the Iraqi people to rise up on their own. Sanctions make Iraqis dependent on the regime for basic necessities, Heikal argued; if they were lifted, the Iraqi people, "who are at the end of their patience," would "take their destiny into their own hands."

Based on what we've seen over the past three weeks, I'm trying to envision the most likely scenario in which an indigenous uprising against Saddam would actually have succeeded. What I can't understand is why anyone would prefer that scenario to the invasion that's going on now.

Let's look at the criteria. The first is civilian casualties; the most frequent argument employed against a U.S. invasion is that it would lead (and has led) to the death of non-combatants. But it's nearly impossible to imagine any local uprising resulting in fewer civilian casualties than the campaign we're now witnessing. The U.S. military has some of the best force protection in the world; American soldiers are protected by air cover, armored personnel carriers, and bulletproof vests, none of which would be available to Iraqi revolutionaries. In an uprising, there would be no computer-assisted targeting of artillery units, no air strikes to reduce the enemy's strength before an attack, no sabotage of Saddam's communications networks. The army divisions and Republican Guard troops that have been so woefully ineffective (thus far) against the U.S. would be a far, far more dangerous adversary against civilians -- and those who participated in the uprising could expect the regime to target their parents and children, who are even more vulnerable.

Moreover, while the U.S. military was able largely to pass by the cities and do its heaviest fighting in the desert, an uprising would have to be fought street by street and block by block, with all the attendant horrors of urban combat. The fedayeen and Ba'ath paramilitaries, whom the British had to fight for weeks to gain control of Basra, would have had free reign to make war on their own people. In a civilian uprising, it would be impossible for the government's forces to distinguish combatants from non-combatants--even assuming that they cared about the distinction, which they don't. And let's not forget what might happen when the regime found itself losing its grip on power: chemical weapons are much more effective against civilians who don't have gas masks, antidotes, and protective suits.

The second criterion is the danger of involving other regional powers. True, an internal rebellion would be less likely to involve Israel or to spark a wider regional war. But would the Turkish army, which has been restrained from crossing the border and occupying northern Iraq only by the pleas and promises of the U.S., be less likely to invade if the Kurds themselves were doing most of the fighting? Would Iran, which is believed to have already sent agents into Iraq, resist the temptation to supply--or even intervene on behalf of--the Shiites in the south?

The third criterion is the likelihood of establishing democratic government. After a successful uprising, it must be admitted, the Iraqi people would have achieved their freedom through a collective struggle. But collective struggles rarely involve all of the people equally, and at the end of the uprising, there would be little incentive for the dominant rebel group to hand over power to any new democratic government. Saddam's regime has systematically destroyed any institutions that could serve to organize civil society after his fall; the opportunities for any kind of "Velvet Revolution" would be extremely limited. An uprising in Iraq would be less like the American Revolution, which was fought by colonial governments recognized as legitimate by their citizens, than like the French or Russian Revolutions, which swept away previous social institutions and which ended in dictatorship. Without international forces on the ground to enforce the transition to democracy--why should we expect the Security Council to send such forces, and why should we expect the rebels' interim government to welcome them?--a newly freed Iraq would be ruled by whoever had the most guns. And if the uprising took the form of a coup d'etat, there would be a far greater chance that a different general would simply take control and that a new autocracy would be established.

The fourth criterion is the preservation of Iraq's territorial integrity. The Kurds, whom the U.S. has pressured to accept autonomy within a federal Iraq rather than an independent state of their own, would be much less likely to make these concessions if they had won their freedom by their own efforts. Divisions among Iraqis would be heightened, rather than reduced, by an uprising that was organized along tribal, ethnic, or religious lines--and no other lines of organization suggest themselves. A post-uprising Iraq would not have nearly as much incentive to protect the rights of ethnic minorities as would an external occupying force. In fact, all the worries about Iraq becoming a new Yugoslavia, with Shiites taking revenge on Sunnis and violence spiraling out of control, would seem far more plausible in the anarchy of an internal revolt.

Finally, there is a fifth criterion, namely preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. One of the biggest dangers of the war is that the fruits of Saddam's weapons program, having been well hidden from inspectors, may fall into the wrong hands during the chaos following the invasion. But the regime's supply of chemical and biological weapons, assuming they were not used, would be even harder to account for without U.S. teams on the ground actively looking for them. And if the downfall of the regime took place through multiple local rebellions rather than a single organized effort, that would only increase the temptation for a local warlord, upon finding a store of chemical weapons, to sell them to the highest bidder.

None of this, of course, means that the U.S. invasion will be problem-free, or that we don't face substantial risks of disaster ahead. A botched American occupation of Iraq could spur terrorism, hurt America's standing in the world, and permanently destroy our relations with many nations in the region--none of which would occur if the liberation were homegrown. But given the choice that the U.S. faced, it's hard to say that the alternative policy--that of letting Saddam remain in power and abandoning those under his rule to their own devices--would necessarily have done the Iraqi people any favors.




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