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COLUMN

What Happens Now?

Ken Nesmith

Major combat, President Bush tells us, has concluded in Iraq. These weeks have been dramatic ones; we’re seeing the beginning of a long process that will determine the future of Iraq, and the region. We sit at a junction that can lead to dramatically different ends, and it will take extraordinary effort, resources, tact, and luck to achieve a favorable, peaceful regional future.

The fighting itself was not sustained for long, quite fortunately. It could not end quickly enough in my mind; video, audio, and written reports of the war induced in me a visceral disgust with such destruction and violence, even as I observed from a distance. At dinners, in social conversation, the war was no longer a matter of debate about freedom, dictatorship, middle east history, and international relations as it was before the first bombs fell; I now uneasily brushed off standard questions of “So what do you think of the war?” with a brisk “I wish for it to conclude as soon as possible.” It was a tragedy compounded by the fact that what we left behind by this operation was a grating, chronic nightmare, a country whose very soul choked under a dark cloud of dictatorship, corruption, torture, and sanctions, and that the course of affairs demanded this wretched medicine. Not even the most prominent voices from the left could offer any other feasible way to end Saddam’s rule (note that more inspections do not end dictatorships). Amidst the flailing charges of imperialism, virulent protests of America, and emotional appeals for peace, the sole legitimate alternative offered to achieve an end to dictatorship over the Iraqi people was to let them do it themselves. As more torture chambers are uncovered by the day in a state where Saddam’s men would wake officers in the middle of the night at gunpoint and prompt, “We’re staging a coup. Are you in?” only to kill them if they replied affirmatively, ending sanctions with a hearty “So long; good luck with Saddam!” to the victims of his rule could not be considered a moral stance; frankly, it’s a disgusting one.

Combat proceeded with blessedly few of the predicted problems. Chemical weapons were not unleashed, Iraqi troops surrendered en masse, the absence of a full northern front thanks to Turkey’s refusal of access wasn’t disastrous, combat did not devolve into bloody urban fighting, and civilian casualty counts were lower than they certainly could have been in such a precarious military scenario. Some troops were welcomed, and some were feared. The felling of Saddam’s statue provided a nice metaphor for the history of the conflict to that point; after Iraqi civilians couldn’t drag the massive statue to the ground with their bare hands, American troops chained it to a tank and used military equipment to help the Iraqis destroy the statue: a bit of military muscle helped to destroy Saddam’s massive likeness. A brief blunder also forewarned of potential danger: a soldier draped the statue in an American flag, but was quickly told to remove it. Iraq is not to be our colony.

Saddam’s fall does not mark even the halfway point in the revitalization of Iraq. The end of fighting has yielded to civil chaos and forebodings of what could be a very dark future. Despite the end of dictatorship, the chaos is not acceptable: a recent MIT graduate astutely observed that “the funny thing about freedom and running water is that you can’t have one without the other. For instance, it won’t work to have water but not be sure whether someone might shoot you in the back of the head or torture your family, but it also won’t help much to vote if you can’t drink regularly, or for that matter, ever.”

He’s sarcastic, but he’s right: rebuilding basic infrastructure and establishing the rule of law is a vital and immediate task. Food and water need to find their way to civilians, fast. The rule of law is sadly absent; surely we share some blame for electing to protect Iraqi oil facilities and petroleum administrative buildings (that is, not the wells and refineries themselves) but leaving open to looting museums stocked with irreplaceable treasures of civilization. Surely the looters deserve much more of that blame. Religious fundamentalism has begun to show its repulsive face in the country, creeping in from neighboring Iran but also reappearing after years of repression under Saddam. The establishment of a functional, prosperous nation is by no means a certain prospect.

Fundamentalist Islamists, strong in number throughout the region, now have the power to sink into primitivism a nation that could otherwise take steps towards modernity. Religious leaders offer civic order, organizing neighborhoods and shaming those who run afoul of the law, but intentions to build an Islamist government a la Iran’s are not sentiments we want to become popular. Moving towards Islamic fundamentalism, allowing the emergence of institutions that deny women’s and more generally individual rights and freedoms, and denying rational thought in the name of primitive mysticism would be to endorse a sick chokehold on civilized existence. The worst philosophical perversions conceivable stand ready to take an entire nation and plunge it back into an age of darkness, setting back the cause of regional progress immeasurably.

We cannot ensure that that will not happen; ultimately, we cannot force reasonable existence on any who don’t wish it--or we can’t do it morally, anyway. However, completely fulfilling our responsibilities and actively participating in the physical and social reconstruction of the region will go a long way towards resisting such regression. The Bush administration is the target of perpetual suspicion and conspiracy theories about a desire to make a few dollars for old friends by staging a war. If they falter, and give truth to those charges by turning on oil via oppression of the population (see Saudi Arabia) and abandoning the reconstruction of Iraq, it will be our domestic responsibility to forcibly replace them via an election in 2004 with leaders with more integrity.

We’ve done more than our share of damage to civilian populations in the Middle East. In Iraq specifically, we armed Saddam, directly endorsed and directed his use of chemical weapons against Iran, gave misleading information about how we would react to invasion of Kuwait (promising that we wouldn’t interfere in inter-Arab conflicts), promised military support for civil opposition and then didn’t deliver it (resulting in mass civilian slaughter by Saddam’s troops), and sat on a clumsy sanctions regime that, in conjunction with Saddam’s largesse and mismanagement, sapped Iraqi society of basic needs, killing huge numbers of children.

After bombing the country intermittently for the past decade, we’ve now destroyed Saddam’s regime. We have some rebuilding to do, and we face resistance in the international community: France and Russia, after borderline reasonable opposition to the war, are taking international relations knavery to a new level by seeking to maintain sanctions on Iraq, even in the absence of Saddam, to spite the United States. We cannot, however, let such irrelevancies distract us. We simply must reconstruct the country, leaving Chirac and Putin to eventually wander out of their ignorant fog into a constructive stance supportive of the Iraqi people.

Nothing less than a complete effort on our part is acceptable -- we’ve certainly shirked such responsibility in the past. Our complete effort, though, is all we can give, and it alone is not enough. It will take the will of the Iraqi people and their respect for democracy, the rule of law, and individual rights to make this a successful reconstruction. Failure here will mean a dangerous return to status quo dictatorship or worse; only this commitment to modernity and reason will bring a prosperous future.