Op-Ed

The Postwar Challenge Will Be Hardest

James B. Steinberg

In the coming days, the eyes of the world will be focused on the battle for Baghdad. It is impossible to predict the duration and the intensity of the battle but its outcome is certain: ultimately the US and its coalition partners will prevail. But success depends on much more than the result of that military engagement. For the US to achieve a meaningful, sustainable victory, one that justifies the cost in blood and treasure, it must now turn its attention to four critical tasks.

First, it must make a long-term commitment to achieving a stable, representative, prosperous and just Iraq. The stated justification for military action is to eliminate weapons of mass destruction; but the administration has all along expressed wider hopes for the benefits of regime change.

Now that the war has entered a decisive phase, it is essential that the US embrace that more ambitious goal, while recognising that it will be hard to achieve. Democracy will not come about overnight. There will have to be a sustained military presence to provide the secure conditions that permit humanitarian assistance; and a willingness to provide political and economic assistance to help indigenous democratic forces build a better society.

The temptation will be to cut and run or to shift the burden to others. But America has too much at stake to let Iraq descend into chaos. The US cannot afford the half-hearted measures that have characterised its approach to Afghanistan.

Second, Washington must fashion a sustainable policy towards the wider Middle East and the Islamic world. Over the past two years, America’s standing there has fallen so far that even natural allies—the educated middle classes that share its ideals and aspirations—have come to doubt its purpose. America is seen as pursuing policies that target tyrannical regimes in Iraq and Iran while condoning anti- democratic practices by its friends. It is viewed as indifferent to the social and economic needs of hundreds of millions of people left behind by globalisation and unwilling to risk its prestige to help more actively in the search for peace between Israel and its neighbours. The war in Iraq risks exacerbating these perceptions.

The administration’s belated recognition—on the eve of the war—that it must step up its efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is welcome but it is only one element of a strategy that would focus on pushing economic reform and liberalisation in the Arab world.

Related Books

America’s third task is to develop a comprehensive approach to halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The war in Iraq illustrates the centrepiece of the administration’s non-proliferation strategy: military pre-emption. Sometimes this may be justified, particularly in cases such as Iraq, where the regime has flouted an unequivocal demand by the United Nations Security Council for disarmament.

But pre-emption cannot be the primary tool in a strategy to halt the spread of WMD. It is deeply destabilising, as it increases the likelihood that America will resort to war and encourages others to do so as well. And it may even be counterproductive, as proliferators accelerate their efforts to obtain nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

Instead, Washington must make sure that pre-emption is truly a last resort and move to strengthen other tools, such as inspections under the non-proliferation treaty, the verification and enforcement mechanism of the Biological Weapons Convention, and efforts to prevent dangerous materials in Russia and elsewhere from falling into the wrong hands.

The administration’s hostility to treaties and international organisations as part of the non-proliferation strategy is profoundly misplaced. These arrangements obviously are not fool-proof; but they can be effective in many cases, and a US commitment to try to work with the international community will strengthen the legitimacy of its actions if, despite good-faith efforts, these multilateral approaches fail.

Last, America must repair the rifts with its democratic allies, whose co-operation is essential to achieve all these long-term goals. The administration acknowledges the need for help but seems to believe that ad hoc coalitions of the willing will suffice. This approach is short-sighted and doomed to fail. America’s long-standing democratic alliances in Europe and Asia offer more than can be provided by partners that are motivated only by an opportunistic coincidence of interests.

Today, much of the debate in America is focused on the non-support of Germany and France; but far more telling is the backing given by most US allies in Europe and Asia, despite un-favourable public opinion. Allies who share America’s values are more likely to be partners across a wide range of challenges; and these broad-ranging ties make co-operation all the more effective.

Some criticise alliances such as Nato and America’s military commitments to South Korea as relics of the cold war and point to the long list of coalition partners for operation Iraqi Freedom. But does Washington really want to depend on Angola and the Marshall Islands to help it build a sustainable, peaceful, democratic world?