The capture of Saddam Hussein was an important psychological victory for the United States and the Iraqi people. As long as he remained at large he was a rallying point for many of those opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq, and at least a source of inspiration—if not funding and possibly even direction—for many of the attacks being carried out by the Iraqi insurgents. His capture means the closing of a terrible chapter in the history of Iraq. However, it does not necessarily mean that the U.S.-led reconstruction of Iraq is now sure to succeed. Saddam was never the major impediment to its success nor the major source of its problems. Indeed, the same could be said of the insurgency in general, which remains more of a nuisance than a true threat. Ultimately, there are far greater problems in Iraq than Saddam or the anti-American insurgents.
By the same token, it should also be said that all is not lost in Iraq. There is much good happening in the country, and many positive developments since the end of major combat operations in April 2003 that make it eminently feasible for the U.S.-led reconstruction to produce a stable, prosperous and pluralist Iraq over the course of the next 5-15 years. Yet there are also many problems with the current course of U.S. policy, strategy, and tactics in Iraq that threaten to undermine the positive. If these negatives are not remedied within the next several months, they could permanently cripple the course of the reconstruction, making the best possible scenario impossible and raising the specter that Iraq might instead slide into a Lebanon-like disaster.
The first task for the United States, and for the Bush Administration in particular, is to recognize that the future of Iraq (and through it, the future of the entire Middle East) is very much in our hands. Washington can talk about “Iraqification” all it wants, but if the United States is unwilling to shoulder the burden of leading the reconstruction—economically, politically, and militarily—for years to come, it will fail. The Iraqis simply cannot do it on their own, and the Administration’s own determination to do things “their way or the highway” has so far made a handoff to the international community impossible.
The sine qua non of success in Iraq will be the willingness of the United States to remain fully engaged in Iraq for many years. As long as the United States does so, Iraq can at least be kept afloat. Even if poor policy decisions prevent realization of the best-case scenarios, they are likely to allow us to stave off the worst-case scenarios and leave us with a Bosnia-like muddle. Bosnia is no one’s idea of a success story, and it is unclear when it ever will be, but it is also unquestionably better off today than it was prior to the international intervention. In contrast, if the United States withdraws from Iraq, or retains only a minor presence, Iraq could come apart quickly and slide into chaos and civil war. While many positives are apparent on the surface and could prevail if given the chance, the forces of entropy lurk farther down.