George W. Bush is a president whose confidence and optimism usually trump second-guessers’ complaints about things going wrong. But more things appear to be going wrong than right in Iraq. The dastardly bombings of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and the Najaf mosque that killed the leading Shi’ite cleric Mohammed Baqir al Hakim, along with daily attacks against coalition forces, must lead to a few dark moments in the White House.
That gloom is unlikely to lessen until security conditions improve in Iraq. Congress is back and, reflecting the public mood, is impatient with the administration’s handling of postwar Iraq. At the least, Congress will demand a firm plan or strategy for rebuilding Iraq that, so far, has not emerged from the White House. Recognizing these misgivings, the administration made a major course correction from its earlier policy of excluding United Nations participation in Iraq’s postwar reconstruction.
No doubt the administration has learned or relearned a great deal about nation-building and about how truculent a “liberated” country can be. It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly in retrospect, that Iraqi society is enormous complex, fragmented and brittle. With a history of repressive rule dating back to Ottoman control and a brief interlude of British occupation after World War I, for the past 80 or 90 years, Iraq has largely endured a military regime of one form or another. Under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, the result was the collective and systemic destruction of the Iraqi nation and any meaning of societal cohesion.
The problems and solutions in Iraq today are far from simple. Nor can they be easily stereotyped as a Shi’ite majority rising against a ruling Sunni minority or Kurds seeking independence. These general observations are correct. However, within each of these and other groups, there are many competing interests and factions. Shi’ites may oppose both Sunni dominance and Ba’athist repression, embracing the United States for short-term help. This does not make these Shi’ites close and loyal allies, however.
When the war ended, ironically, there was a reversal in strategic advantage between the coalition and this diffuse “opposition.” Saddam was absolutely powerless against coalition military superiority. The war was an unfair fight and, from America’s perspective, so much the better. In the peace, the advantage has shifted. Overwhelming military force is an insufficient instrument for neutralizing the political consequences of insurgency and violence in Iraq.
The diverse and contentious opposition groups, often at war with each other, reflects a broad mix of Shi’ite, Sunni, Ba’athist and other Iraqi and foreign elements. Their general intent is to exploit or oppose foreign occupation, either subtly as Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress are doing in hopes of one day taking over the political process or by direct attack, terror and violence. And Iraq, despite being a shattered state, is also a very vulnerable one.
The recent attacks can be viewed as either lucky or brilliant in design and execution. In the bombings against the Jordanian Embassy and U.N. headquarters, the opposition has warned international organizations and supportive states to get out or stay out of Iraq. In killing the Imam Baqir al-Hakim, the penalty for supporting the coalition or opposing other groups in opposition is death. The destruction of the key oil pipeline to Turkey and part of the water distribution system in Baghdad shows how vulnerable Iraq’s remaining infrastructure really is to disruption. And, tragically, the major morgue in Baghdad remains filled with the bodies of Iraqis killed by other Iraqis.
Sadly, while Americans are unmatched at war, the opposition in Iraq is skilled in terror. Saddam loyalists used terror as the main means of control. Lebanon in the 1970s and ‘80s and much of the Middle East as well as Afghanistan were training grounds for others now operating in Iraq. Those that were too young used these experiences as textbooks. The enemy does not need huge numbers. Hundreds, if organized and led effectively, can create all manner of politically disruptive mischief. So, for the time being, the coalition, despite overwhelming military power, is in a very vulnerable strategic posture in winning the peace.
Of many nightmares, several must be particularly scary for the president. A chief purpose in going to war was that, by eliminating Saddam, the strategic balance in the region could be favorably altered through imposing a democratic government in Baghdad. That dream could turn nasty. Iraq runs some risk of becoming a failed state under American occupation. And the nightmare is that preventing such a failure may only come with international help, the price of which could be forgoing democracy in Iraq.
Then, there is the mother of all nightmares. Suppose Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination. Perhaps that prospect will energize the administration to get Iraq right.
Harlan Ullman is a columnist for the Times.