- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

After President George W. Bush's double victory in the United Nations and the election, it is time to get serious about Saddam Hussein. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer's "one bullet" solution for the dictator sets the right tone. The simplest solution with the least casualties is the best. The conservatives who set a "pluralistic, Western-oriented Iraq" and a democratic Mideast as the goal are asking for a neocolonialism that will make the failures in Somalia, Lebanon and Haiti nation-building look like cakewalks.

Since Iraq was drawn on the maps of a faraway colonial office in 1921, it has generated dozens of coups, eight Kurdish revolts, nine Shi'ite uprisings and three pogroms, all before Saddam imposed his terrible order on the local factions. He then allied his secular Arab revivalist Ba'athists with the minority Muslim Sunnis and Christian Chaldeans, who feared a united fundamentalism more than Saddam. Revolts since then have killed 100,000 Iraqi Kurds and 30,000 Shi'ites. Playing well with others is not a high priority in old Mesopotamia. While of pluralism there is aplenty, it is not the benign type required for a democracy.

Iraq is only a small part of the regional job. The most important stabilizing force in the area is Turkey. Any successful peace in Iraq must give the Iraqi Kurds independence or regional autonomy. But that would further destabilize Turkey, which as its recent elections demonstrate, has its own fundamentalist problem and has been suppressing it and Kurdish independence from the beginning. The Kurds are not some simple people without a history. Saladin was a Kurd and his peoples would like nothing more than a base in Iraq from which to rebuild their empire in Turkey and Iran. Regional power Iran, with its ruling fundamentalists and Syria with its dictatorship are in many ways worse neighbors than Saddam and poorer candidates for Western freedom. But the neocolonialists want to reform Saudi Arabia into an outpost of democracy too. Come on.

Many think an American presence would at least assist ally Israel. A war with Iraq diverts attention from Jerusalem, shifts Arab anger eastward and inserts the American colossus as a stabilizing force into the region during the occupation that would follow a hopefully easy U.S. military victory. The lifting of the burden at the beginning would seem like salvation; but it is difficult also to see how Israel's military self-assurance could last the years required for regional regime change once its citizens (and the terrorists) realized the Americans were the real protectors in the region. Could even its universal military service be sustained, much less its fighting elan?

Freedom in the West took centuries. But could a U.S. occupation to build a democracy persevere even 20 years? American troops have been in the Balkans for less than a decade but pressure to bring the troops home, especially when they rest upon the wide use of reserves, builds quickly in a democracy. Recently, the U.S. defense secretary requested that European troops replace his in Yugoslavia. After several years, American forces gave up on building democracy in Haiti and departed. Somalia was a rout, as was Lebanon before it. There are places in harm's way where U.S. military forces have stayed longer, such as in Western Europe or Korea but not if they remain under hostile fire.

History tells the story of another Western settlement in the Mideast that was enormously successful for a very long time. The Crusaders occupied Jerusalem for a century and held on to Acre for almost an additional hundred years. Ultimately, though, Europe tired of the burden and laid it down. Even Constantinople was more deserted by Venice, Rome and the West than won by the Muslims. The English and French empires in the region likewise ended more by exhaustion than military defeat. The West quickly tires of Mideast violence and intrigue.

President Bush encouraged the nation-builders by saying he would like to assist "the institutions of liberty" in the region. But the president also said he had not yet decided whether to commit troops, much less to support nation-building. But his spokesman did encourage a coup and a single-bullet solution. To date, he has not even been dragged into transforming Afghanistan into a Western democracy. Mr. Bush has a pragmatic streak and did forswear nation-building during his presidential campaign. He just may be clever enough to eliminate the Saddam threat without the hubris of thinking he can recreate the world in his own image.


Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.


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