A Post-Saddam Scenario

Iraq could become America's primary staging ground in the Middle East. And the greatest beneficial effect could come next door, in Iran

the constellation of overseas bases with which the United States sustained its strategic posture throughout the Cold War was a matter not of design but of where Allied troops just happened to be when World War II and its aftershocks—the Greek Civil War and the Korean War—finally ended. The United States found itself with basing rights in western Germany, Japan, Korea, the eastern Mediterranean, and elsewhere. In particular, our former archenemy, Germany, precisely because America had played a large role in dismantling its Nazi regime, became the chief basing platform for U.S. troops in Eurasia—to such a degree that two generations of American soldiers became intimately familiar with Germany, learning its language and in many cases marrying its nationals. If the U.S. Army has any localitis, it is for Germany.

A vaguely similar scenario could follow an invasion of Iraq, which is the most logical place to relocate Middle Eastern U.S. bases in the twenty-first century. This conclusion stems not from any imperialist triumphalism but from its opposite: the realization that not only do our current bases in Saudi Arabia have a bleak future, but the Middle East in general is on the brink of an epochal passage that will weaken U.S. influence there in many places. Indeed, the relocation of our bases to Iraq would constitute an acceptance of dynamic change rather than a perpetuation of the status quo.

Two features of the current reality are particularly untenable: the presence of "unclean" infidel troops in the very Saudi kingdom charged with protecting the Muslim holy places, and the domination by Israeli overlords of three million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Neither will stand indefinitely. President Bush's refusal to force the Israelis out of the West Bank has heartened neoconservatives, but it is a temporary phenomenon—merely a matter of sequencing.

Only after we have achieved something more decisive in our war against al Qaeda, or have removed the Iraqi leadership, or both, can we pressure the Israelis into a staged withdrawal from the occupied territories. We would then be doing so from a position of newfound strength and would not appear to be giving in to the blackmail of those September 11-category criminals, the Palestinian suicide bombers. But after the Israelis have reduced the frequency of suicide bombings (through whatever tactics are necessary), and after, say, the right-wing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon has passed from the scene, Bush, if he achieves a second term and thus faces no future elections, will act.

But first the immediate issue: Iraq. The level of repression in Iraq equals that in Romania under the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausüescu or in the Soviet Union under Stalin; thus public opinion there is unknowable. Nevertheless, two historical cultural tendencies stand out in Iraq: urban secularism and a grim subservience. Whenever I visited Baghdad in the past, the office workers at their computer keyboards had the expressions that one imagines on slaves carrying buckets of mud up the steps of ancient ziggurats. These office workers labored incessantly; a cliché among Middle East specialists is that the Iraqis are the Germans of the Arab world (and the Egyptians are the Italians). Iraq was the most fiercely modernizing of Arab societies in the mid twentieth century, and all coups there since the toppling of the Hashemite dynasty, in 1958, have been avowedly secular.

Given the long climate of repression, the next regime change in Iraq might even resurrect the reputation not of any religious figure but of the brilliant, pro-Western, secular Prime Minister Nuri Said, who did more than any other Iraqi to build his country in the 1940s and 1950s. As in Romania, where the downfall of Ceausüescu resurrected the memory of Ion Antonescu, the pro-Hitler nationalist executed in 1946 by the new Communist government, the downfall of Iraq's similarly suffocating autocracy could return the memory of the last great local politician murdered in the coup that set the country on the path to Saddam Hussein's tyranny.

Iraq has a one-man thugocracy, so the removal of Saddam would threaten to disintegrate the entire ethnically riven country if we weren't to act fast and pragmatically install people who could actually govern. Therefore we should forswear any evangelical lust to implement democracy overnight in a country with no tradition of it.

Our goal in Iraq should be a transitional secular dictatorship that unites the merchant classes across sectarian lines and may in time, after the rebuilding of institutions and the economy, lead to a democratic alternative. In particular, a deliberately ambiguous relationship between the new Iraqi regime and the Kurds must be negotiated in advance of our invasion, so that the Kurds can claim real autonomy while the central government in Baghdad can also claim that the Kurdish areas are under its control. A transitional regime, not incidentally, would grant us the right to use local bases other than those in the northern, Kurdish-dominated free zone.

Keep in mind that the Middle East is a laboratory of pure power politics. For example, nothing impressed the Iranians so much as our accidental shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988, which they believed was not an accident. Iran's subsequent cease-fire with Iraq was partly the result of that belief. Our dismantling the Iraqi regime would concentrate the minds of Iran's leaders as little else could.

Iran, with its 66 million people, is the Middle East's universal joint. Its internal politics are so complex that at times the country appears to have three competing governments: the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei and the goons in the security service; President Mohammad Khatami and his Western-tending elected government; and the former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose bazaari power base has made him a mediator between the other two. Sometimes Iranian policy is the result of subtle arrangements among these three forces; other times it is the result of competition. The regimes of Iraq and Iran are fundamentally different, and so, therefore, are our challenges in the two countries.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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