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Flashbacks: "The Intervention Question" (April 7, 2000)
Atlantic articles from 1967 to 1996—by George McGovern, Ronald Steel, Jonathan Clarke, John J. Mearsheimer, and Robert D. Kaplan—take up the issue of American interventionism.
Flashbacks: "Who Are the Kurds?" (February 17, 1999)
Two Atlantic articles from the past decade put the "Kurdish problem" in perspective.
Flashbacks: "Oil and Turmoil" (July 11, 1996)
Three Atlantic authors tackle the issues of politics, oil, and the Persian Gulf.
More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.
October 1, 2002
ith the United States seemingly moving ever closer to a confrontation with Iraq, and with the debate about the advisability of an attack growing ever more heated, now seems a fitting time to take a considered look at Iraq, and at some of the arguments, both historical and new, on the subject of U.S. involvement there. A collection of Atlantic articles from 1958 to the present offers a variety of perspectives on this volatile nation and its contentious relationship with the United States.
Iraq was created after World War I, when Britain joined three provinces of the former Ottoman Empire to form a new nation. Iraq's territory comprised a southern region dominated by Shiite Muslim Arabs, a middle section including Baghdad and composed mainly of Sunni Muslim Arabs, and a mountainous northern area populated by the non-Arab Muslim group known as Kurds. To rule Iraq, Britain installed a monarchical branch of the noble Arab Hashemite lineage, which held power until 1958, when it was toppled in a military coup.
It was in that year that William R. Polk wrote "The Lesson of Iraq" (December 1958) which considered the origins of the coup, its possible consequences, and the goals the United States should now hold for the region. "The problems of the Middle East," he pointed out, "will be with us for the foreseeable future":
[Those problems] are primarily the responsibility of the peoples of the area, but they also affect us closely, for the Middle East provides 80 per cent of the oil required by the European economy, is crossed by the major trade routes between Asia-Africa and Europe, and could be the seedbed of a war.
The ruling figure behind the Hashemite monarchy had been the pro-Western prime minister, Nuri al-Said. He had been murdered in the coup, and it was now unclear whom the U.S. should deal with in its interactions with Iraq. Polk emphasized that given the importance of the region to the U.S.'s own interests, and Prime Minister Nuri's advanced age, the U.S. should have been better prepared for the possibility of change.
In the case of his retirement, which Washington should have foreseen, upon whom or what were we planning to rely? Nuri built no party organization and had no follower of sufficient ability to succeed in command. The hatred directed toward his government, which was held in check by the fear he inspired, could not be controlled by any associates or followers.
Nuri's autocratic governing style, Polk suggested, had been the primary cause of his government's overthrow. As money had begun to flow into Iraq—a result of increasing oil revenues—Nuri had sought to invest much of it in modernization. A significant component of this modernization effort consisted of sending young people abroad to learn professional skills in Europe and America. Upon their return to Iraq, many of these young people chafed under Nuri's rigid regime, and their frustration had eventually led to revolt.
Political repression in Iraq had been relatively severe. Severe enough, that is, to effectively close to the opposition all peaceful means of change and to deprive the younger generations of any overt means of giving vent to its frustrations. Student demonstrations, the traditional street forum of Middle Eastern nationalists, were suppressed by expulsion from schools, by jail sentences, or by bullets. Political opposition was thus a bar to professional advancement. At all levels, the younger and better-educated people felt stifled under the minute observations of a paternalistic government. Recently discovered police records indicate that in the city of Baghdad alone nearly 20,000 agents in the secret police kept watch. When one takes into account the Iraqi literacy rate, this means that virtually every educated man had a police double.
Polk held out a good deal of hope, however, for the future of the new regime. Given that the new government was filled with people who, like the rebels of the American Revolution, had fought for greater freedom and openness, Polk felt that the United States should welcome the regime. Instead, the U.S. was opposed to it.
The new government is at least as akin to us ideologically and seems to be a movement which might accomplish many of the sorts of reforms we would advocate; and the new government is not founded on a single, aging personality but is representative of a whole generation of those we may rightly regard as our intellectual foster children.
As for America's goals in the region, Polk distilled them to three: peace, a supply of oil for Europe, and the use of oil revenue toward modernization of the region's states. Since American and Iraqi interests were essentially identical in these respects, Iraq and the United States, Polk argued, should be able to forge a mutually beneficial relationship.
However, fractious conflicts between emerging political parties led to further coups in 1963 and 1968. In 1979 the journalist Claudia Wright visited Iraq and filed a report that April, writing that the country seemed poised for success. The regime then in power was dominated by representatives of the Baath party, which sought Arab unity and nationalism. Though ruthless in its hold on power, this government had managed to establish some degree of institutional stability and to make good use of Iraq's oil revenues. Moreover, the country was showing signs that it might emerge as the major political force in the region, especially since Egypt, traditionally predominant, had compromised its standing and leadership by signing a peace treaty with Israel. As Wright wrote,
Iraq's emergence is the result of three things: oil, military strength, and internal development.... The combination of these three factors has led to Iraq's new status and to the recognition, everywhere else if not in the United States, of its extraordinary potential for pre-eminence in the Middle East.
She described the country as now having an aura of "self-assertion and confidence," and suggested that it might at last be heading toward an era of peace and prosperity:
After twenty years of chronic warfare in the northeast, tension, and military preparedness along every frontier, the Iraqis have little taste for military adventures or bloodshed. And on the domestic front, the present leadership cannot afford to allow the country's resources to be drained away by unproductive investment, or its energies to be wasted in protracted military conflict. Iraq's first goal, as officials declare in interviews and in the hard facts of the annual budget and the current five-year plan, is to put internal development ahead of military buildup.
During her visit, Wright took special note of Iraq's second-in-command—a charismatic man whom she believed showed great potential as a leader:
[Saddam] Hussein, forty-one years old, has worked his way up through the ranks since high school days as a Baath youth organizer. He is quite dashing and his photograph occupies a place with al-Bakr's in all ceremonial locations. If there are elements of a personality cult in the country, Hussein, who is famous for his white suits and black ties, outshines the president with his military ribbons.
Shortly after Wright's article appeared, Saddam Hussein took over the presidency from Iraq's ailing leader. But the era that began with his ascendance was a far cry from the golden age Wright had predicted.
Much of the material progress of the previous decade was gradually erased as Saddam pursued military solutions to Iraq's longstanding border disputes, first by annulling a previous treaty with Iran—thereby launching a lengthy war that was disastrous for both countries—and then by invading Kuwait in 1990, which led to Iraq's Gulf War defeat and the imposition of devastating international economic sanctions.
In "Tales of the Tyrant" (May 2002), Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, took a close look at the bizarre personality of Saddam Hussein, and described the violence and repression that have enabled him to retain an iron grip on his country for so long. Bowden suggested that it is in part Saddam's megalomaniacal conviction that he is the God-appointed avenger of the Arab people that continually gets him and his country into trouble. One former Iraqi minister, now in exile, recalled Saddam's failure to seize a last-minute opportunity to avoid the debacle of the Gulf War:
We had the most horrible meeting on January 14, 1991, just two days before the allied offensive. Saddam had just met with the UN Secretary General, who had come at the final hour to try to negotiate a peaceful resolution. They had been in a meeting for more than two and a half hours, so hopes were running high that some resolution had been reached. Instead Saddam stepped out to address us, and it was clear he was going to miss this last opportunity. He told us, Don't be afraid. I see the gates of Jerusalem open before me.' I thought, What is this shit? Baghdad was about to be hit with this terrible firestorm, and he's talking to us about liberating Palestine?
While the people of Iraq have suffered from such actions, Saddam himself has only consolidated his power. But ultimately, Bowden suggested, Saddam will fall, because his cruel and irrational actions have created so many enemies both within his country and beyond. Many, of course, believe that the U.S. must speed along Saddam's end—or at least curtail his power—lest Saddam find the means to lash out in some unforeseen but catastrophic way.
Over the past decade, during which Saddam has never strayed far from the headlines, a number of Atlantic authors have debated this question of whether, and to what extent, the United States and its allies should intervene in Iraqi affairs. Two articles seem to support the contention that the exploits of Saddam are America's business. In "Why the Gulf War Served the National Interest" (July 1991), Joseph S. Nye Jr. justified America's entry into the Gulf War. Saddam's Iraq, he argued, with its expansionist aims and potential for creating weapons of mass destruction, clearly posed a threat to regional (and world) stability. And Saddam's egregious violations of human rights were causing the kind of moral outrage among Americans that compels action. Nye was careful to add, however, that important to America's Gulf War victory had been the fact that it was able to marshal international support and did not act alone. While American military might (or "hard power") was the most obvious reason for the allied victory, he explained that America's "soft power" had been equally important:
America's capacity to promote its national interests will have to rest on both hard power and soft power. Hard power is based on the familiar resources of military and economic might. Soft power, the ability to co-opt rather than command, rests on intangible resources such as culture, ideology, and the use of international institutions to determine the framework of debate. In the Gulf crisis it was important to get the hard power of the military to Saudi Arabia quickly, but it was equally important to have the soft power to shape the UN resolutions that defined Iraq's entry into Kuwait as a violation calling for sanctions.
In a more recent article, written this summer as war with Iraq was starting to loom, Robert D. Kaplan seemed optimistic about the benefits of American military involvement in Iraq. "The real question," he argued, "is not whether the American military can topple Saddam's regime but whether the American public has the stomach for imperial involvement of a kind we have not known since the United States occupied Germany and Japan." Distasteful as such hands-on involvement might be to many Americans, he suggested, it could effect important and desirable changes that would spill over into Iran and other pivotal parts of the region.
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....
But during the same ten-year stretch, several Atlantic authors have emhasized the argument that America should be extremely cautious about becoming deeply involved in Iraqi affairs. In The Atlantic's July 1991 issue, Christopher Layne's "Why the Gulf War Was not in the National Interest" appeared as a counterpoint to Joseph Nye's defense of U.S. involvement. Layne contended that the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had been exaggerated in order to create a false sense of urgency that would justify going to war. Even if Iraq really had been close to developing a nuclear weapon, he argued, war would not necessarily have been warranted.
Achieving an altered Iranian foreign policy would be vindication enough for dismantling the regime in Iraq. This would undermine the Iranian-supported Hizbollah, in Lebanon, on Israel's northern border; would remove a strategic missile threat to Israel; and would prod Syria toward moderation. And it would allow for the creation of an informal, non-Arab alliance of the Near Eastern periphery, to include Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Eritrea.
It is extremely important not to overreact to the emergence of new nuclear powers. It would be tragic if other nations (India in relation to Pakistan, for example) used the Gulf War as a precedent to justify preemptive military action against prospective nuclear rivals. Even the prospect that an egregious government may acquire nuclear weapons does not automatically justify a strike against its nuclear facilities.
Layne also emphasized the problems that had been raised by the challenge of maintaining postwar stability in the region. It wasn't clear who could replace Saddam, or if Iraq itself might disintegrate under religious or ethnic strife. A new post-Saddam regime, he pointed out, was unlikely to be much of an improvement.
Would a post-Saddam Hussein government adopt a less threatening foreign policy? It would in the short run, because postwar reconstruction will absorb Iraqi energies for some time. Eventually, however, Baghdad will reassert its long-standing aspirations for regional predominance. Iraq's national aspirations (including its designs on Kuwait) long pre-date Saddam Hussein, and they will not disappear just because he does.
Finally, he warned, the war had given America a dangerously inflated sense of its own importance that could eventually lead to trouble.
The war has produced the intoxicating belief that American power is unchallenged and that Washington can lay down the rules for behavior both among the nations and within them. But Americans should beware of the overweening ambition that is born of hubris. The world is not infinitely malleable. The United States has seldom done well trying to stage-manage the process of political change in other countries. It is the people in those countries who pay the price when American experiments in "nation-building" go awry. There are many problems in the world but few of them have "Made in America" solutions.
Two years later, in "The Persian Gulf: Still Mired" (June 1993), Alan Tonelson argued that the Middle East is so volatile and intrinsically unstable that America's best long-term strategy would be to downgrade its interests in the region. Saddam, Tonelson conceded, is "wicked," "stupid," and a "lunatic," whose "interests fundamentally conflict with ours." But overthrowing him, he contended, would present far more problems than would simply disentangling ourselves by renouncing our dependence on Middle-Eastern oil.
Overt American moves to oust Saddam Hussein would encounter not only severe international opposition—for exceeding the UN resolutions that authorized the Gulf War—but also severe regional opposition. For this Americans can be grateful, unless they relish the prospect of militarily occupying a country whose next peaceful transfer of power will be its first....
Finally, in "The Fifty-First State?" (November 2002), James Fallows considered possible outcomes of a future attack on Iraq, and argued that while winning a war against Saddam would be easy, dealing with such a war's consequences would be a monumental task.
During the past fifty years America's need for oil has created a host of other interests and assumed responsibilities that have taken on lives of their own from stemming the proliferation of advanced weapons to establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with the Islamic world. But without the Gulf's huge oil reserves these objectives, however important and desirable, would fade to secondary importance. Kicking the oil habit need not prevent American involvement in Gulf controversies or in active diplomatic efforts to broker an Arab-Israeli peace. It might even permit deeper involvement. But the United States would have much more control over the terms of its involvement.
To begin with, he argued, the U.S. should not expect to be able to simply topple Saddam and then move on. Rather, a war would represent only the beginning of a "long" and "intimate" association with Iraq.
The day after a war ended, Iraq would become America's problem, for practical and political reasons. Because we would have destroyed the political order and done physical damage in the process the claims on American resources and attention would be comparable to those of any U.S. state.
Equally important, he suggested, is the fact that wars—especially in unstable regions like the Middle East—always hold the potential to set off dramatic, unpredictable chain reactions. Indeed, he emphasized, the outcome of an attack on Iraq may be impossible to anticipate.
Wars change history in ways no one can foresee. The Egyptians who planned to attack Israel in 1967 could not imagine how profoundly what became the Six Day War would change the map and politics of the Middle East.... Fifty years before, no one who had accurately foreseen what World War I would bring could have rationally decided to let combat begin....
It has become a cliché in popular writing about the natural world that small disturbances to complex systems can have unpredictably large effects. The world of nations is perhaps not quite as intricate as the natural world, but it certainly holds the potential for great surprise. Merely itemizing the foreseeable effects of a war with Iraq suggests reverberations that would be felt for decades. If we can judge from past wars, the effects we can't imagine when the fighting begins will prove to be the ones that matter most.
—Bruce Fudge and Sage Stossel
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Bruce Fudge is an editorial intern for The Atlantic, and a PhD. candidate in Arabic and Islamic studies at Harvard. Sage Stossel is an editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.