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A Realist Critique of U.S. Iraq Policy

Adam Kolasinski

As American casualties in Iraq mount, President Bush’s Iraq policy has come under intense criticism. While Bush deserves criticism for his Iraq policy, much of it has been erroneous. Let us sift the valid criticism from the nonsense.

Many critics have asserted that Bush lied about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction to get us into the war, since it is now apparent that Saddam Hussein did not have any actual stockpiles of such weapons. Such criticism is outrageous because U.S. intelligence agencies were certain that Hussein did have WMD stockpiles, a fact that can be verified by a myriad of sources, including Bob Woodward’s new book and Kenneth Pollack’s article in the January/February Atlantic. Furthermore, while it may be true that Hussein did not have any stockpiles of ready-to-use chemical or biological weapons, he did possess the materials and technology to manufacture such weapons and was funding an effort to obtain nuclear weapons, as is documented in David Kay’s report.

Other critics, while admitting that Bush never lied, charge that he misled the public by omitting mention of intelligence that seemed to indicate Hussein’s nuclear program was only a minor threat. This criticism has merit, but given that Iraq’s nuclear program was only a small part of the case for war, the biological and chemical programs taking center stage, Bush’s transgressions here seem minor. Unfortunately, all wartime presidents hyped their wars, and Bush’s hype is minimal compared, for example, to Bill Clinton’s exaggeration of Kosovo Serb war crimes by several orders of magnitude.

Others have charged that Bush’s strategy was excessively unilateral. On its face, this charge is demonstrably false since many nations, including Australia, Britain, Poland, and Italy, contributed troops. Those important countries that protested or sat out were not going to help no matter what. China, France, Germany, and Russia had financial interests in keeping Hussein in power. Turkey worried the war might encourage Kurdish nationalism. Yes, we recently lost Spain’s help, but one cannot blame Bush for Spanish cowardice.

Bush’s true fault has been a failure to articulate the strategic imperative of the war. Before the war, Bush was acting as if he were a prosecutor, trying to prove that Saddam violated UN resolutions in order to justify his ouster, as if great powers need some legal pretext in order to eliminate an annoying rogue regime. Instead of making a legalistic argument, Bush should have argued that we were taking Hussein out because it was in the West’s strategic interests to do so.

Situated in between three countries that either actively sponsor or tolerate radical Islamic terrorists, Iraq has great strategic importance. The ability to move bases out of Saudi Arabia to Iraq will allow us to pressure the Saudis to crack down on Islamic radicals. Iraq will make a convenient base from which to conduct operations aiding the Iranian resistance and to coerce Syria into stopping its sponsorship of radicals. We cannot win our war on radical Islam until we achieve these three objectives. Furthermore, while Hussein may not have yet had an alliance with Al-Qaeda, he was aiding other Islamic terrorists. Such aid, and the fact that he shared some interests with Al-Qaeda, made likely a future alliance, one which would be particularly dangerous given his capability of manufacturing chemical and biological weapons. Throw in the benefit of Iraqi oil coming to market, and the case for war becomes irrefutable.

Instead of making such a case based on geopolitical strategy, Bush attempted to base everything on WMD, and now that WMD have not been found, on democratizing Iraq. Neither argument is persuasive. Other rogue regimes possess WMD. Many countries are not democracies. Why single out Iraq?

Inability to articulate the strategic importance of our presence in Iraq appears to be causing Bush to engage in foolhardy occupation policy. To realize the strategic benefits of the war, it is imperative that a stable, friendly government be installed in Iraq as soon as possible. Whether such a government is democratic matters little, so long as it is not wildly unpopular or an egregious violator of human rights. Bush, however, is prioritizing democracy over our strategic interests, to the detriment of the latter. Democracy will not likely succeed in a primitive, quasi-tribal country like Iraq, as the experiences of Haiti, Zimbabwe, and countless other places seem to indicate. We can hold elections in Iraq, but one, we probably won’t like the outcome and two, whoever wins will likely follow in the footsteps of Aristide or Mugabe and become a useless thug. Scholar Daniel Pipes rightly noted that our interests would be best served by installing in Iraq a friendly, “democratically-minded strongman” in the tradition of Ataturk or the Hashemite monarchs.

There are plenty of moderates in Iraq, such as the associates of the Ayatollah al-Sistani, who have a popular following and who, with American help, could come to rule Iraq the way Abdullah rules Jordan. We should pick a popular moderate and offer him power in exchange for his leading his followers to fight the Sunni insurgents and the Iranian-backed Shiite radicals. Iraqis will be more willing to fight for a local like Sistani than Paul Bremer. For all its faults, the British Empire demonstrated that ruling by proxy through favored local factions is an effective method of occupation.

Yet instead of picking a desirable faction, the Bush administration, in its desire for democracy, has foolishly sought to give all factions a voice and favored none. Al-Sadr’s faction, for example, now giving us no end of trouble, never made secret its desire for Iranian-style theocracy. Yet the Bush administration tolerated them, squandering several opportunities to neutralize al-Sadr. Our support of a Baathist general in Fallujah is another example. If we are to achieve our strategic objectives, we must ensure that those Iraqis who will make good allies end up in power.

Bush must disabuse himself of neo-Wilsonian delusions about democracy. Many countries in the world are not democratic, yet only a small subset of them breeds terrorism. To win our war we must destroy those who sponsor the radical islam that causes global terrorism. A government of an Islamic country need not be democratic to aid in this task, as Jordan and Egypt demonstrate. The experience of Turkey suggests that the purging of radical Islam from a country by a benevolent dictator may even be a necessary first step to lasting democracy. Yes, it would be nice if we could make Iraq democratic immediately, but the meager, unlikely-to-be-realized benefits from attempting it do not justify the risks.

Adam C. Kolasinski is a graduate student in financial economics.