A Case for Hell

Much of the furious debate at the United Nations has been over whether inspectors are capable of disarming Iraq, but what really divides the United States from its chief critics on the Security Council are two diametrically opposed scenarios of a post-war Iraq. The American scenario, dubbed "new dawn," sees a transformed Iraq leading a democratic revolution in the Middle East that would sweep away monarchs and dictators, end the isolation of Ariel Sharon's Israel, boost oil production and bring in high-tech industry. The French and Russian scenario, dubbed the "gates of hell," foresees a rise in Islamic radicalism and terrorism and in global economic and military instability. No one can really know what this war would bring -- the repercussions from the Gulf War are still being felt -- but here are some reasons why, even if the United States quickly ousts Saddam Hussein, the Mideast might more closely resemble the gates of hell than the new dawn.

Democracy and modernization

The Bush administration hopes to imitate U.S. successes in establishing democracies in post-World War II Japan and Germany, but doing so in Iraq may prove far more difficult. Iraq has never experienced even a semblance of democracy. The country was knitted together by the British after World War I out of three Turkish-controlled provinces and is composed of three feuding religious-ethnic groups, the Sunnis, the Shia and the Kurds. Even though the Sunnis constitute only about a third of the population, the British, following the practice of the Turks, put this group in charge. Under Hussein they have remained so, but only by violently repressing separatist uprisings. Iraq after Saddam Hussein would be like Yugoslavia after Josip Broz Tito: It will be pulled apart by centrifugal forces. What most concerns American military strategies, for instance, is having to police a fractious post-war Iraq. Says one war college professor, "They aren't worried about fighting Iraq but about garrisoning it afterwards."

An invasion of Iraq could transform neighboring Arab countries, but not in ways that would fit the administration's specifications. After the Gulf War, Islamic radicals led upheavals in Egypt and Algeria. Currently the principal opponents of the Saudi and Kuwaiti monarchies and of the Algerian, Egyptian and Pakistani governments are pro-Palestinian, pro-al-Qaeda Islamic radicals who would turn these countries further away from the West.

Bush administration officials believe that a post-Hussein Iraq would also help modernize the Mideast, but Iraq is a poor candidate for this job. Like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, it would depend primarily on oil revenues for its income, and like other oil-rich states, it would suffer from what economists call the "Dutch disease" -- high exchange rates from its oil exports that price other potential export industries out of the world market. Even in countries such as Nigeria and Venezuela, oil wealth has undermined rather than encouraged modernization. The key to modernizing the economy of the Mideast would be to integrate the high-tech Israeli economy into the region, as some Israeli Labor Party officials advocated in the late 1990s. But that dream is unlikely to be realized by an invasion of Iraq that is meant, in part, to buttress the pro-occupation Likud Party's rule in Israel.

A decline in terrorism?

American strategists believe that by ousting Saddam Hussein, they will intimidate would-be terrorists. That might work in the short run, especially if combined with successes against al-Qaeda and with the Sharon government's no-holds-barred military offensive in the Gaza Strip, but it's not likely to provide a lasting solution. Al-Qaeda and other Arab terrorist groups put an Islamic gloss on Arab opposition to American and British imperialism, and to Israel as a proxy for Western imperialism. An American occupation of Iraq, along with continued backing for the Sharon government, would only strengthen this opposition. The immediate reaction could be confined to raucous but terminable street demonstrations. Yet if peoples and movements feel themselves faced with superior and unyielding military force, they often turn -- as the Chechens and Palestinians already have -- to terrorism.

As the Europeans have urged, the first step toward reducing terrorism in the region is not to invade Iraq but to begin resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. After the Gulf War, the intifada continued to rage but was cut short by the first Bush administration's aggressive diplomatic initiatives, the victory in 1992 of a Labor government and the subsequent Oslo Accords. If this Bush administration were to follow up a victory in Iraq with a peace offensive in Israel, it could, perhaps, begin removing a critical source of terrorism and unrest. With the pro-Likud Elliot Abrams now firmly in charge of policy toward Israel, however, the Bush administration is unlikely to pressure Israel to withdraw from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The region's peoples also have long memories. The Israelis keep believing that they have subdued Palestinian militancy only to find it returning stronger than ever. The first intifada took place five years after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon drove Yasir Arafat to Tunisia. In Iran, the United States helped engineer a coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, restoring Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power and helping him crush his political opposition. But the opposition finally rose up again in the late 1970s, overthrew the shah and installed a virulently anti-American regime dominated by Islamic clerics. What goes around comes around.

Of course a U.S. overthrow of Hussein wouldn't necessarily embitter the Iraqis themselves. But the specter of the United States, with Israel watching enthusiastically from the sidelines, brutally imposing its will on an Arab regime, even one unpopular with its citizens, could inspire a strong response in the Arab world that would eventually take the form of terrorism. And if an American occupation persisted in Iraq, the Iraqis, too, might turn against their would-be liberators.

A prosperous America and world?

Bush strategists promise that a successful war would free up Iraq's oil resources and reduce world oil prices, helping to revive the flagging world economy. By contrast, the French and Russians warn of Hussein burning up his oil fields to prevent an American takeover, as he did to Kuwait's oil fields during the Gulf War. That would lead to skyrocketing energy prices and an almost certain world recession. It is impossible to say whether this will occur, but what can be said is that American predictions of an Iraqi oil boom are unfounded. According to a joint study by the Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Council on Foreign Relations, it would take Iraq as long as three years and cost up to $30 billion to restore even the production levels it enjoyed on the eve of the Gulf War.

The war -- and the resulting conflict between the United States and its European allies -- could also exact other tolls on the world economy. The United States is running a huge international-payments deficit of almost $3 trillion. Over the next decade, that deficit could spiral upward due to irresponsible fiscal policy and to military expenditures -- enlarged by the costs of occupation in Iraq and by foreign adventures in places such as the Philippines. During the Vietnam War, when the United States was running similar deficits, European pressure on the dollar helped precipitate a financial crisis in the early 1970s. The same thing could occur during the coming decade.

Such a crisis would be caused primarily by American financial overreach, but just as before it could be aggravated by geopolitical conflicts -- this time emanating from the bitter UN debate over Iraq. Already European Union countries are calling for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to denominate oil in euros rather than in dollars, and the Chinese have floated the idea of replacing the dollar with the yuan as the East Asian regional currency. These conflicts could also spur the creation of protectionist trade and currency blocs. The United States is threatening to retaliate against Germany by reducing its military expenditures there, while the EU opposition to American geopolitics probably contributed to the failure of the recent World Trade Organization meetings in Tokyo.

Economists argue that the trends toward globalization will sweep away these hostilities, but as Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson recently pointed out, the opposite could happen: The conflicts themselves could threaten the global trading and financial order, as happened on the eve of World War I, when the world economy was just as integrated as it is now. Who knows: Perhaps an Iraq war would turn out to be an unfortunate but forgettable interval in world history, much like the Crimean War of the 1850s. But it could also turn out to be a watershed in international relations, one in which the United States, harboring illusions of omnipotence, undermined the international institutions created after World War II, sowed decades of discord in the strategically vital Mideast and, by fatally overreaching, set itself on a path of national decline.

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