Let's assume that the United States and its allies have overthrown Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. What types of issues and problems will follow?
Looking ahead like this is not merely an exercise in prophecy. It is an attempt to think through probable and possible developments as a guide to what policies should be adopted, how they should be implemented, and how to plan for dealing with future contingencies.
Here are some ideas, and their implications:
Once the regime is overthrown it will not make a comeback. The Ba'ath party is a relic of the past, kept in place by its control over the state. No one is going to rebuild the current regime, if for no other reason than that people seek power for themselves and want to avoid the stigma of the past. Iraq may again be a dictatorship but who needs Saddam to recreate that?
After the regime's downfall, U.S. forces will be able to take journalists on tours of hidden Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) facilities, hidden arms arsenals, torture chambers and prisons. They will be able to show them documents and interviews about Iraq's secret backing for terrorists and a connection with Osama bin Laden if one existed. Iraqis will speak out on how much they hated the regime and how much it oppressed them. If the war does not go on too long and casualties aren't too high, there will probably be an outpouring of retrospective feeling that the attack on Saddam was a good thing to do.
Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction would then be easily discovered and removed or destroyed.
A key issue from the start will be whom the United States backs to rule Iraq. Clearly, the democratic-minded exiles led by Ahmad Chelabi are in a favorable position, but how will they be mixed with "insider" groups including high-ranking military officers? Will the returning exiles be able to maintain unity? How will they be received by those who never left Iraq, how much power will the U.S. government give the new regime, how competent would they be at ruling, and how long will the honeymoon last?
Timing is critical and it might be the factor which trips up the American effort. The United States must stay long enough to establish a stable regime but not too long to wear out its welcome. Indications are that U.S. leaders envision a long stay, and this decision might prove far more dangerous than the choice of going to war in the first place. The longer U.S. forces stay in control and in large numbers, the more likely there will be antagonisms of Iraqi nationalism, Arab sentiment, and Islam. Equally, a prolonged stay would undercut the legitimacy of a successor regime.
Just one example of how this would work: Let's say there are 20 applicants for a cabinet-minister position. The U.S. authorities could pick the most competent and honest candidate, but the other 19, along with all their families and supporters, would still hate them for it. They'd have every interest in labeling their successful rival an American puppet and mobilizing all sorts of lies and nationalist and Islamist appeals, even trying to find foreign sponsors on behalf of their own ambitions.
How will the three key communities - Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish - get along? Will a federal solution, with more autonomy for the regional provinces, be acceptable and workable? The Sunnis will have to accept that they no longer rule the country. The Kurds will have to deal with their own unity - they are now split into two rival regimes in the north - and accept a more limited territory than they want. The Shi'ites will have to create a new leadership altogether, somehow balancing secularist and Islamist factions.
None of these tasks will be easy.
In terms of economic reconstruction, Iraq will probably be able to pay for itself fairly quickly with expanded oil exports, but there is a massive and long-term series of projects necessary to rebuild this sector and other damage to infrastructure.
Then there are all the international factors involved.
European states would quickly seek lucrative contracts with the new Iraq and want everyone to forget they were opposed to the war in the first place.
Turkey does not want a Kurdish state or anything approaching one. It is interested in protecting the ethnic Turks in northern Iran and ensuring that neither Kurdish refugees nor guerrillas cross into its territory. On the positive side, Saddam's overthrow could signal an economic bonanza large enough to pull Turkey out of its recession. The Iraq-Turkey oil pipeline would run full every day, thousands of trucks would cross the border with Turkish exports, and Turkish manufacturers and construction companies would provide a lot of the equipment and labor to rebuild Iraq. Ironically, the Islamist government in Turkey could gain huge support for its "success" in improving its country's economy.
Iran will be happy to see its enemy, Saddam and his regime, thrown out of office, but less happy to find large numbers of U.S. troops and a pro-U.S. government on its border. The problem is not so much whether Iran can control the Iraqi Shi'ites - it cannot - but the extent to which Tehran will try to subvert the new regime by backing terrorist groups among Kurds and Shi'ites. In the parallel case of Afghanistan, Iran liked the downfall of the Taliban but then made problems for the new government. But the Iranian opposition might see the Iraq outcome as an inspiration to heighten its own struggle against the hardliners.
The Arab world will no doubt quickly recognize a new government in Iraq once U.S. control recedes a bit. The Saudis will want to assure its friendship, Jordan will want to deal with it economically, Egypt will want to explain why Baghdad should follow Cairo's lead, and Syria will want to make sure the new regime is not hostile to it.
The effect on Arab-Israel issues and Palestinian politics? That requires another article.
Toward the United States there will probably be a curious mixed response in the Arab world. Arab regimes concluding that the United States was too powerful to challenge will seek to avoid confrontation. At the same time these rulers will be determined to show their peoples that what happened in Iraq was bad, to mobilize support lest America comes after them, and to deter their citizens from seeking democracy or other types of things the Iraqi exiles and United States hope to institute in Iraq.
Finally, there is the question that might come to dominate Middle East history for the first half of the 21st century: Will Iraq be a model for moderation and democracy in the same way Egypt has been for Arab nationalists and Iran has been for Islamists? We will be spending many years discussing that point.
* * *
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary University.