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The United States has won an important victory in Iraq. Removing Saddam Hussein’s regime from power has eliminated a terrible threat to the people of Iraq, the Middle East, and the entire world. Casualties from the war, both for coalition military personnel and Iraqi civilians, have been gratefully low—the images on al-Jazeera notwithstanding. There were very few terrorist attacks, either inside or outside Iraq. Although, as expected, the Iraqi people have mixed feelings about the United States, most of them feel a sense of relief that Saddam’s tyranny is gone. Certainly, this war could have gone much worse than it did.
Americans should not lose sight of these significant accomplishments, but neither should they ignore the very real risks that still lie ahead. Washington’s handling of both the prewar diplomacy and the immediate aftermath have hardly been faultless. In general, the Bush Administration did a fine job of nailing down the political, military, and even economic tasks required to ensure the success of the war itself, but neglected other issues that could determine the ramifications from the campaign over the longer term.
The force the United States employed in Iraq was adequate to handle the most important military tasks (albeit while taking some risks with the long supply lines back to Kuwait), but desperately requires reinforcement to handle the all-important political tasks that have now taken center stage. The looting and lawlessness that continue to prevail in large parts of Iraq were entirely predictable, and almost certainly preventable by the presence of coalition troops charged with keeping the peace. While this may seem like a minor problem, it is one that could have very severe consequences if not quickly resolved. As we have seen in places like Yugoslavia, a power vacuum can quickly tear apart the internal fissures in a country that might otherwise have remained whole.
What’s more, the coalition’s failure to quickly restore order and security in Baghdad and other major cities could affect the critical issue of the legitimacy of the reconstruction effort. This is where the looting of antiquities from the Iraq Museum could an immediate impact. Many Iraqis worry that Washington intends to colonize their country and steal their oil, and they point out that the United States deployed enough troops to ensure the safety of the Iraqi oil ministry in Baghdad. The priority shown to the oil ministry over the Iraq Museum strikes exactly the wrong chord with many Iraqis.
So too does American action on behalf of the Iraqi National Congress and other exile groups. Few Iraqis are familiar with these exiles. Airlifting INC members into Iraq and allowing them to claim that one of their own has been “elected” the new senior official in Baghdad simply reinforces the fears of many Iraqis that Washington intends to install a puppet government beholden to U.S. oil companies. There was never any question that the political reconstruction of Iraq was going to be a difficult and painful process but, as with the inadequate initial security presence, the United States’s inability to immediately articulate its plans for a transitional political authority created an opening that is allowing Chalabi and others to assert themselves in a way that diminishes the legitimacy of the U.S. effort.
This legitimacy is critical to the success of the reconstruction effort. If reconstruction is going to succeed at all, it is going to take a long time—five, 10, 15 years or more. What’s more, international assistance will be required for most or all of that time. However, American and other international personnel will be welcome in Iraq only as long as the Iraqis see the endeavor as legitimate. Thus Washington’s miscues could have serious consequences if they prompt Iraqis to turn against the international presence altogether.
Which is also why bringing the reconstruction under the rubric of the United Nations remains the best course of action available to the United States. Unfortunately, the choice is often presented as binary: either the United States handles the reconstruction or the UN does. This is nonsense. There is no reason on earth that the United States and the UN cannot handle the operation jointly. In Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, Haiti and elsewhere, the UN has developed hybrid systems for handling specific problems. In the case of Iraq, successful reconstruction will require a very strong U.S. component—to provide key resources and direction—but it will also require a UN umbrella to provide the legitimacy that is necessary to allow a long-term international presence.
The Bush Administration has smartly recognized the need for the United States to commit itself to a full-scale rebuilding effort. Now it has to be smart enough to ask for the help needed to make it a success.