May 22, 2003

Random Thoughts on Iraq

The U.N. Security Council is about to vote on removing sanctions on Iraq. The resolution on the table has been revised to make it more acceptable to Russia, France, and others. It is to be hoped that this resolution moves forward the process of making Iraq whole. A big job is before us. Here are some random thoughts about it.

Why didn’t we immediately declare martial law in Iraq? There was surely no doubt that we would win the war because we couldn’t afford to lose it. (Had it been necessary to destroy the country in order to save it, we would have done that.) We therefore knew that we would have to maintain order, lest Iraq descend into anarchy. Unfortunately, we seem to have decided to cross that bridge when we came to it, and we assumed that rebuilding the government wouldn’t have to be done from scratch. We are now dealing with such foreseeable questions as the degree to which we will allow Baath Party members to be part of any future government. While we are figuring out what to do next, the country has been busily tearing itself apart and organizing religious parties that seek to create a new Iran (or Afghanistan). People should have been kept in their houses and, for the moment, prevented from demonstrating (and perhaps even from meeting). Arguably, we didn’t have enough troops to enforce martial law, and certainly didn’t have enough MPs. Why not? We are now sending troops home! The President seems eager to put a government in place in Iraq and to seem to be doing something about the deteriorating U.S. economy, so he can be re-elected in 2004. Will we install a government and leave, only to see it become an Islamic theocracy after a “decent interval”? Surely, we don’t want to see a Vietnam-like withdrawal from a war that we actually won!

What about OPEC? We have at least four reasons to ignore OPEC and its quotas. The first reason, of course, is that the OPEC cartel restrains free trade. (Could the WTO move against OPEC? I don’t know.) Second, we need all the funds we can get to rebuild Iraq, and maximizing oil revenue seems to be the way to get them. Third, selling more oil at lower prices will lower the cost of gasoline in the U.S. This is good for Americans and would seem to be a great boon to Mr. Bush’s election prospects (well, that isn’t a good thing). Finally, if the Iraqi deals with Russia are honored—they should be, as should all Iraqi foreign debt—telling OPEC to go to hell will result in more revenue for the Russians. They need the money, and this will buy the U.S. some goodwill. Spurning OPEC will confirm the suspicions of everyone who thought this war was all about oil, but even those people will reap benefits. Of course, the President may not want to offend OPEC because doing so will be unpopular in Arab countries and because Big Oil probably secretly likes OPEC (doesn’t mind it anyway), which keeps prices relatively stable.

The administration has a genuine problem of deciding how much authority it can allow the U.N. to have in Iraqi affairs. The need to improve our reputation among the world’s nations argues for giving the U.N. a significant role in rebuilding Iraq, yet American wariness is not simply paranoia. In fact, the Oil for Food program was run badly, resulting in illicit gains for Saddam Hussein and for unscrupulous foreign “merchants.” We will be tempted to take responsibility for the “important” tasks ourselves (installing a government) and to leave the less glamorous tasks to the U.N. (food relief). We justifiably will be chastised for this. Perhaps a more ideal division of labor would be for us to manage everything, farming out some work to others, and to have the U.N. monitor everything. Responsibility for some tasks would be assigned to the U.N. As manager, we would oversee this work, but some other country should assume the external monitor role. The smart money is not on my plan.

In the short run, no truly democratic process in Iraq is going to produce the outcome we would prefer, namely a western-style liberal democracy. Our government is not acting as if it believes this, however, which is worrisome. For appearances’ sake, we are eager to get an indigenous government (or a quasi-indigenous one, if exiles are to be involved) up and running, so we can extract ourselves sooner, rather than later (by September 2004, say). This approach is not promising. Imposing a constitution, as MacArthur did on Japan (see “The Next Battle for Iraq”) might work, though Iraq is not the homogeneous nation that Japan was after World War II, and the lawgiver’s task is arguably more difficult. I recommend instead temporary military rule and a lot of education. For now, no program of education is in sight.

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