Op-Eds by Jim
Heading for Trouble: Do we really want to occupy Iraq for the next 30 years?
September 4, 2002
by James Webb, The Washington Post
Country music’s most popular song this summer is a defiantly nationalistic tune by Toby Keith, in which he warns potential adversaries that if they mess with us, “we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Last week the Chinese government showed us its way. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had brought a conciliatory gesture from the Bush administration, agreeing to recognize a separatist group in China’s Xinjiang province as a terrorist entity. This diplomatic contortion was so appeasing that the Economist magazine labeled its logic “astonishing.” And yet the day after Armitage left, the Chinese government sent its own political signal by “test-firing” a DF-4 missile, which has a range of more than 4,000 miles and was designed to attack U.S. military bases on Guam.
The implied disrespect of this incident did not occur in a vacuum, either militarily or diplomatically. As our country remains obsessed with Saddam Hussein, other nations have begun positioning themselves for an American war with Iraq and, most important, for its aftermath. China, which has pursued a strategic axis with key Islamic nations for nearly 20 years, received the Iraqi foreign minister just after Armitage’s departure, condemning in advance an American attack on that country. Russia has been assiduously courting — both diplomatically and economically — all three nations identified by President Bush as the “axis of evil.” Iran — the number one state sponsor of international terrorism, according to our own State Department — has conducted at least four flight tests of the nuclear-capable Shahab-3 missile, whose range of 800 miles is enough to hit U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, Turkey and Central Asia.
Meanwhile, American military leaders have been trying to bring a wider focus to the band of neoconservatives that began beating the war drums on Iraq before the dust had even settled on the World Trade Center. Despite the efforts of the neocons to shut them up or to dismiss them as unqualified to deal in policy issues, these leaders, both active-duty and retired, have been nearly unanimous in their concerns. Is there an absolutely vital national interest that should lead us from containment to unilateral war and a long-term occupation of Iraq? And would such a war and its aftermath actually increase our ability to win the war against international terrorism? On this second point, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the Joint Chiefs vice chairman, mentioned in a news conference last week that the scope for potential anti-terrorist action included — at a minimum — Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Georgia, Colombia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and North Korea.
America’s best military leaders know that they are accountable to history not only for how they fight wars, but also for how they prevent them. The greatest military victory of our time — bringing an expansionist Soviet Union in from the cold while averting a nuclear holocaust — was accomplished not by an invasion but through decades of intense maneuvering and continuous operations. With respect to the situation in Iraq, they are conscious of two realities that seem to have been lost in the narrow debate about Saddam Hussein himself. The first reality is that wars often have unintended consequences — ask the Germans, who in World War I were convinced that they would defeat the French in exactly 42 days. The second is that a long-term occupation of Iraq would beyond doubt require an adjustment of force levels elsewhere, and could eventually diminish American influence in other parts of the world.
Other than the flippant criticisms of our “failure” to take Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War, one sees little discussion of an occupation of Iraq, but it is the key element of the current debate. The issue before us is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein, but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years. Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay. This reality was the genesis of a rift that goes back to the Gulf War itself, when neoconservatives were vocal in their calls for “a MacArthurian regency in Baghdad.” Their expectation is that the United States would not only change Iraq’s regime but also remain as a long-term occupation force in an attempt to reconstruct Iraqi society itself.
The connotations of “a MacArthurian regency in Baghdad” show how inapt the comparison is. Our occupation forces never set foot inside Japan until the emperor had formally surrendered and prepared Japanese citizens for our arrival. Nor did MacArthur destroy the Japanese government when he took over as proconsul after World War II. Instead, he was careful to work his changes through it, and took pains to preserve the integrity of Japan’s imperial family. Nor is Japanese culture in any way similar to Iraq’s. The Japanese are a homogeneous people who place a high premium on respect, and they fully cooperated with MacArthur’s forces after having been ordered to do so by the emperor. The Iraqis are a multiethnic people filled with competing factions who in many cases would view a U.S. occupation as infidels invading the cradle of Islam. Indeed, this very bitterness provided Osama bin Laden the grist for his recruitment efforts in Saudi Arabia when the United States kept bases on Saudi soil after the Gulf War.
In Japan, American occupation forces quickly became 50,000 friends. In Iraq, they would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets.
Nations such as China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall. Indeed, if one gives the Chinese credit for having a long-term strategy — and those who love to quote Sun Tzu might consider his nationality — it lends credence to their insistent cultivation of the Muslim world. One should not take lightly the fact that China previously supported Libya, that Pakistan developed its nuclear capability with China’s unrelenting assistance and that the Chinese sponsored a coup attempt in Indonesia in 1965. An “American war” with the Muslims, occupying the very seat of their civilization, would allow the Chinese to isolate the United States diplomatically as they furthered their own ambitions in South and Southeast Asia.
These concerns, and others like them, are the reasons that many with long experience in U.S. national security issues remain unconvinced by the arguments for a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Unilateral wars designed to bring about regime change and a long-term occupation should be undertaken only when a nation’s existence is clearly at stake. It is true that Saddam Hussein might try to assist international terrorist organizations in their desire to attack America. It is also true that if we invade and occupy Iraq without broad-based international support, others in the Muslim world might be encouraged to intensify the same sort of efforts. And it is crucial that our national leaders consider the impact of this proposed action on our long-term ability to deter aggression elsewhere.