Yale '62 - Iraq - Picking Up The Pieces - Stephen Buck

"Iraq - Picking Up The Pieces"
By Stephen Buck
Mar. 27, 2003

As someone who over 39 years served at eight Arab posts, including Baghdad as Deputy Chief of Mission (1986-88), I agree with Neil Goodwin and Chris Snow and disagree totally with Richard Davis.

Despite its attempts, the Bush Administration has not made a convincing case for an Iraq-al-Qaeda conspiracy. It's not difficult to see why. Saddam's secular regime and Usama bin Ladin's Islamist fanaticism could not be farther apart. Even if Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, he has been contained and could have stayed contained (see "An Unnecessary War," an excellent article in the January/February of Foreign Policy). The New York Times had it right - whatever Iraq's threat to us, it is not worth the gamble we are taking in pursuing a unilateral war.

I entered the Foreign Service as we slid into the Vietnam War based on a false premise, the "domino theory," and administration fabrications used to win the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Now, the administration has used false intelligence to justify war, and hyped a variant of the domino theory, claiming that invading Iraq, with all its concomitant slaughter and destruction, will somehow lead to a flowering of democracy in the Arab world.

The apparent ignorance about the Arab world of some of those proposing these ideas about democracy is at times quite startling. They proudly pronounce that "we have come not to occupy but to liberate," unaware that this is almost word for word the phrase used by British General Maude as he occupied Baghdad in 1920. For generations Iraqi schoolchildren were forced to memorize and repeat this phrase, all the while hating it.

Our unilateral war is likely to make us - and the world - less safe, not more. It is likely to reinforce already widespread Arab and Muslim resentment against U.S. policies, and eliminate one of the few things that we still had going for us, that we were not, and had never been, a colonial power in the Arab world.

It is of course far easier to criticize than come up with solutions. Diplomats are paid not to inveigh, but to deal with present reality, and present reality is a U.S. committed to occupying Iraq and running it long into a very uncertain future. So what to do?

First, heed the advice of a wise American diplomat with decades of Iraq experience who often told me, "With Iraq, there are no good options, only least bad ones." As I write this, those who hyped "Shock and Awe" are facing the hard choice of either massively bombing Iraq's cities, with attendant casualties, or ordering equally bloody street fighting. Even if we are initially welcomed when Saddam falls, the honeymoon could be very short, if at all. The history of Iraq for the last 80 years has been one of fighting foreign domination and building a functioning, united country. This has been a huge task for a country that has no natural boundaries and three very separate major groups (Sunni Arabs, Shi'a Arabs and Kurds). If it is true that Iraqis hate Saddam Hussein, it is also true that nearly 40 years of effective British rule left a lasting distaste for foreign occupation. We will need to ensure that those who administer Iraq make use of its many trained civil servants, listen to Iraqis who have lived through Saddam's regime and not just those who have been outside for decades, and tread lightly in trying to impose solutions concocted abroad.

In bringing down Saddam's repression, we will also place at risk one of the most secular states in the Middle East. Our occupation could lead to the spread of extremist Islamist resistance. Hamas, now responsible for so much killing in Israel, did not arise in a vacuum. It arose from occupation. Our occupation of Iraq may lead to a huge increase in the very extreme Islamist terrorism we are trying to fight.

Most importantly, we will need to ensure that Iraq does not break up and to keep its neighbors from meddling in the country's internal divisions. At the same time we will need to listen to these neighbors, not confront them (in the case of Iran), and not abandon them (in the case of Turkey). It is their neighborhood, not ours, their cultures, not ours, their oil, not ours. This means not taking out our anger at Turkey for refusing our staging requests. Ninety percent of Turks oppose our invasion of Iraq. We should respect Turkey's democratic decision and expect in return that Turkey put aside any designs on northern Iraq's Kirkuk oil fields.

As an effect of our war, Richard Davis talks about the "winds of democracy" even touching Saudi Arabia. They already are, in the form of 104 prominent Saudis who presented a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah in January urging a more civil society and an eventual elected Consultative Council. The best way we can promote such change is not to colonize but to be consistent in our own policy. Without credibility we can do nothing, and at the moment our credibility in the Arab world is near zero.

To be credible, the Bush Administration will have to be perceived as something more than either the occupier or the supporter of occupation. It will have to actually do something about the Israel/Palestinian problem, rather than having the President make a last minute pronouncement at the pleading of Tony Blair. For Arabs the suffering of the Palestinians remains the key issue. The Arab culture is one of honor and shame. Daily, via satellite TV, Arabs see the symbol of their humiliation and powerlessness in Israeli bulldozers destroying Palestinian homes and lives. They see no U.S. action to bring the two sides together in meaningful negotiation. Ned Walker, former Ambassador to Israel and Egypt and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, put it well recently when he said that in the present administration, Middle East peace is not even a 9-5 job.

We are the ones who have gotten ourselves into the Iraq mess. The irony is that a President who declared himself against nation building now has embarked on a task in many ways far more daunting than rebuilding post war Europe or occupying Japan. In Japan we could work through the Emperor, in Europe, through a common Western culture. In Iraq we have neither. Having thumbed its nose at "old Europe," the Bush Administration will have to live with the consequences of its unilateralism and ask Americans to pay far more to rebuild and keep intact Iraq. The alternative, "quick in and quick out," will mean the break up of Iraq, endless strife, and the very Afghanistan type situation the Administration says it is determined to avoid.

We blame the UN for not doing its duty, when it is the U.S. that has become the odd man out in the world, not the UN, whose inspection processes we stopped. To succeed, the Bush administration will have to listen, not order, build international institutions, not undermine them. I wish there were more to indicate that it intends to do so.

The Steve Buck photo was taken in 1998 on a mountain top in Azir province in Saudi Arabia, which Steve points out is where many of the 9/11 highjacker terrorists came from.

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(Editor's Note: Steve thought you might find the following to be of interest:)  "Arabs"