What if? Another take on Iraq
The good Doctor has come up with an interesting exercise, and one that has the potential to be quite fun: project the future in a world where the United States does not invade Iraq. I think my colleague does a good job of constructing an ethical argument about the invasion, and I have no real quibbles with that. I would like to cast my net a little further, if you will, and perceive what the Middle East may have looked like without an American invasion, in other words, what the region would look like if Saddam were to stay in power. Naturally this is idle speculation, and I hope readers take issue with at least some, if not all of it. If we’re going to create an alternate universe, we might as well have fun with it, right?
So let us assume that President Bush, rather than proceed with Operation Iraqi Freedom when it becomes obvious that he won’t secure UN approval, acquiesces to the stipulations placed on the invasion by the French-led UN Security Council and agrees to hold off for six more months. Saddam, using the tactics that have kept him in power all these years, is able to turn a six month delay into a year, two years, and so on, just as he has done in the past. US troops eventually drain out of the region, but a substantial presence remains in the region (most likely in Qatar) due to the need to quickly restrain Saddam’s territorial ambitions should he once again cast a covetous eye towards the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Effectively, Saddam defeats the US and UK at the UN. France saves the day.
Leaving aside further inquiry into THAT tragedy, what would this mean for the Middle East? Obviously Saddam would be able to further consolidate his power, having gained some respect from the Arab world for standing up to the US. Nonetheless, the various physical, legal and social infrastructures of the country would continue to deteriorate, aided and abetted by the fact that the totalitarian regime would continue to reward cronies and yes-men with political patronage and contracts. Money realized from the notionally illegal sale of oil would go directly into the coffers of the ruling family and its sycophants, most of them Sunni. The no-fly zones, their political support at the UN weakened because of America’s climbdown, would eventually cease to exist: Saddam moves in to re-impose his iron-fisted rule. Needless to say, the sanctions eventually cease to exist. Saddam reconstitutes his chem/bio, and possibly nuclear, weapons programs.
Eventually, however, Saddam would die. Either by bullet, poison, or old age, he would at some point breathe his last breath. This is where the real questions begin. What next?
In his wake, Saddam leaves his two sons. Presumably, one of them would assume Saddam’s role, possibly after killing off the other. This son would then be faced with a series of problems: a restive Kurdish minority in the north, an unhappy Shi’ite plurality, and infrastructure already decades in obsolescence. Iraq’s neighbors eye the country nervously: Turkey is equally concerned about its Turkish minority, Iran’s mullahs see opportunity in the faces of the millions of Shi’ites next door, Kuwait wakes up one morning to find itself between Iraq and a hard place (sorry, I just had to do it), and Saudi Arabia’s ruling family takes one look at the wide, open swath that is the two countries’ border and breaks out into a cold sweat.
The US has some forces in the region, probably just enough to deter Iraq from considering an invasion of Saudi Arabia, but is powerless to stop Iraq’s slide into civil war. The UN, unsurprisingly, is as feckless as it has always been. The Security Council creates a multinational force to keep the peace; the US, burned by previous experiences with the UN, does not participate due to the fact that it cannot receive guarantees concerning American soldiers’ ability to operate free from political persecution and the ineffective (and therefore dangerous) command structure of the mission. The EU, all too happy to flex its military muscle, volunteers the Euroforce to fill the void. The mission fails spectacularly as troops, lacking a unified command structure, bunker down in fortified areas, rarely leaving.
Turkish troops, concerned that organized Kurds will want to create a unified Kurdistan, occupy Northern Iraq and crack down on rebellious Kurds. The EU promptly suspends all accession talks with Turkey, handing isolationist Islamists a major victory. Iran, sensing an opportunity to bloody the noses of the West, supports Shi’ite radicals with arms and training. Shi’ite irregulars overrun a Euroforce garrison, slaughtering all inside. The EU withdraws from Iraq. The UN deplores the situation. The situation continues to worsen. Sunnis, led by Saddam’s son, begin using chemical weapons on their former countrymen, the Kurds and the Shi’ites.
America is able to redeploy troops, stationed in Qatar, in time to protect Saudi Arabia. Despite desperate entreaties by the EU and the UN, the US cannot insert itself into the situation in time to stop the slide to civil war, as America’s civilian and military leadership have visions of debacles like Beirut and Somalia. However, since the US has never removed troops from the Arabian peninsula, and since illiberal regimes are still the rule in the Middle East, America has continually faced terrorist threats as Anti-Americanism combined with repressive regimes and Wahhabi-style fundamentalism increases the numbers of well-heeled fanatics willing to give their lives in the service of bin-Laden’s successors.
Ultimately some sort of equilibrium sets in: the civil war quiets as Iraq is ethnically cleansed. No one knows how many lives were lost, but the numbers likely approach seven figures. Iraq goes on to a long and glorious future as one of the poorest countries on earth. America is no safer from Islamist terror and has retreated into isolationism. Europe has decided that it lacks the stomach for being a world power and does the same. Illiberal democracies continue to rule in the Middle East. After that, who knows.