The War Behind Closed Doors
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iraq, the middle east, and beyond?

Some within the Bush administration argue that a successful regime change in Iraq could be a test case for a transformed, democratic Middle East, or maybe even a catalyst for free and open societies elsewhere in the world. Here, defense policy experts Kenneth Pollack and Richard Perle; William Kristol of The Weekly Standard; and historian John Lewis Gaddis of Yale evaluate that thinking.

Professor of Political Science, Yale University

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The argument that the administration is making about Iraq behind the scenes -- because it seems to me, here you've got to read between the lines -- is basically this: that if, in fact, the United States can find the appropriate occasion for military intervention in Iraq and go in with United Nations' support and multilateral support -- perhaps, in the view of some people in the administration, even if the United States goes in without these things -- [it] is going to set off a reaction in Iraq very similar to what happened in Afghanistan. And that is that we will be cheered and not shot at; that there is a sufficient level of resentment and fear and frustration with the Saddam Hussein regime that the Iraqi people are just waiting for somebody to come in and topple it.

That then creates the possibility for a reconstruction of Iraq, the administration is saying, along democratic lines. And I think they are serious in what they are saying. I think that they are thinking about the reconstruction along the lines of what we did with Germany and Japan at the end of World War II. How realistic that prospect is in that country is something else. But I think that they are serious in thinking like that.

I think they are further serious -- and again this is not going to be said in public -- [that] what they have in mind as a long-term strategy is actually a kind of domino theory in the Middle East; that if, in fact, you could get a functioning democracy in a place like Iraq, that truly would have an effect next door in Iran. That's perfectly plausible; it might well have an effect elsewhere in the Middle East.

And in my own view -- definitely not something the administration is saying for publication -- this is a strategy that's ultimately targeted at the Saudis and at the Egyptians and at the Pakistanis; these authoritarian regimes that, in fact, have been the biggest breeders of terrorism in recent years. Iraq has not been; Saudi Arabia actually was. And I think the administration is thinking over the long term about that problem, too. And properly so; they should be thinking about that.

Why wouldn't they be able to talk about that in public?

Well, you can't talk about this in public as long as you want the Saudis as your allies and as long as you want to use Saudi bases for the war against Iraq and as long as you are relying on Saudi oil. But, of course, if they can pull off Iraq, if they can accomplish this as successfully as many people in the administration think they can, then they have less need for Saudi bases and they have less need for Saudi oil. And so the two parts of it fit together.

Where might this strategy end up?

It's getting very speculative as to where this strategy winds up. But the Bush National Security Strategy was very explicit in saying that our ultimate objective is to see that democratic governance spreads everywhere in the world. And they are careful to make the statement as well that we regard no culture as incapable of practicing democracy so that they do not buy into the clash of civilizations theory. In fact, they say very explicitly in the NSS that what's happening is a clash within a civilization, not a clash of civilizations.


And so the premise is that democracy could transplant to the Islamic world as well as it has to other parts of the world over the last 50, 100 years or so. So that is the ultimate end point that we're talking about. How long that takes, how successful that will be, what are the problems that could come up along the way; nobody can answer those questions. There is a long-term vision here, which is something that has not existed -- not in this form -- in serious American foreign policy leadership.

But does the world really work like that -- that there's a domino theory that could set off such historic changes?

Well, it sounds very ambitious to say that you could democratize the world. It sounds quite utopian when you put it in those terms. But if you were to get into a time machine and go back to the year 1900 and say to somebody back then that by the end of the 20th century we would be something like 120 functioning democracies in the world, that would have been considered extremely utopian and unrealistic given how many there were in 1900.

So it is true that the historic trend is toward the spread and diffusion of democratic governments, and that the 20th century is going to be remembered as the century in which democracy spread astonishingly widely. So who are we to say that this process has stopped now that we've gotten into the 21st century? Who are we to say that the 21st century necessarily is going to be different in this regard?

Now, some trends happen in the world not because the Americans necessarily caused them to happen, but they simply reflect long-term historical forces. And there is some reason to think that the movement toward democratization is one of these.

It's sort of an amazing thought: You get attacked by a group of terrorists, you get hit hard, and the way you combat that threat is by changing the world.

I don't think it's astonishing to say that, on one hand, you get hit hard by terrorists and you respond by reforming the world. That's what happened at Pearl Harbor. The United States had no interest whatever in even engaging with the rest of the world. ... Our strategy was very much one of isolationism, not entanglement. ... Pearl Harbor completely changed our framework, and very quickly we shifted to the idea that it was not going to be enough just to end the war. Well before World War II was over, we accepted the idea that we had to change the conditions that had caused the war in the first place. And that turned us into reformers and global reformers even at that point. So surprise attacks, shocks of this nature can have that effect and they can cause dramatic changes in a country's strategy.

Editor, The Weekly Standard

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I think the case for removing Saddam stands on its own. ... Having said that, I do think Bush also went beyond the particular case of Iraq and his thinking after Sept. 11. And, I guess, the way I would reconstruct his thought process might be something like this.

He really looked to the Middle East, and he said, "Look, we live in the 21st century in a world in which the Middle East continues on the path it's been on for the last 10 or 20 years, which despite all of our good efforts on the Arab/Israeli peace process, and despite our close, or allegedly close, relations with the Saudi [and] Egyptian governments, the big picture story in the Middle East has been increased extremism, increased anti-Americanism, increased support for terrorism, dictators developing weapons of mass destruction. And you can't just sit back and let that go on.

And I think Bush has made the fundamental decision, therefore, that in addition to Iraq, which is the most immediate danger, we need to rethink our general Middle East policy and get serious about trying, with all the limitations that, obviously, one has to accept, about beginning to remake the Middle East.

Now, I don't think the administration has thought through all the implications of that; so they don't really want to see all the implications for now, this is too daunting. What does it say about our relations with the Saudis over the long run? But I do think the administration is committed, and Bush personally has a sense that he can't just sit back and let it go the way it was going. We tried that. We made good faith efforts on the Arab/Israeli peace process in the 90s. We made good faith efforts in all kinds of ways to help the Middle Eastern countries in the 90s. But, we weren't serious about fighting terrorism, didn't crack down at all on the export of extremist Islam. We've seen the dictators developing weapons of mass destruction and getting away with it. And the effect of that was really disastrous. That has to be reversed.

Chairman, Defense Policy Board

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There is a defined grand scheme, that the fact is what you accomplish in Iraq also has monumental effects within the region. The region has been very hard to effect for a very long time. What is the feeling? What could be accomplished?

I think there is tremendous potential if we prosecute this war in the right way with the right result -- which is the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime, and its replacement with a group of Iraqis who will move the country in the direction of a humane and open politics -- there is tremendous potential to transform the region.

First, it will inspire the opponents of the regime in Iran. I have no doubt about that. And the opponents are many because life is miserable under the mullahs. If a tyrant like Saddam Hussein can be brought down, others are going to begin to think -- they're already thinking -- that they may begin to act to bring down the tyrants who are afflicting them in pretty much the same way. So I would think the results would be beneficial in Iran.

I also think some autocratic regimes in the region will accelerate whatever efforts they might make anyway to reform themselves internally, and to open their political process. Because the absence of democracy in the Arab world, the absence of a say in the life of the country of ordinary people, is destabilizing and dangerous.

So I think this will accelerate the process of reform. It may be reluctant reform, regimes opening things up a little bit because they fear the consequences of not opening. But the rigid dictatorial governments of most of the Arab world may begin to give way.

And finally, if Iraq moves from the column of opponents of the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians into the column of proponents, that could have an important major effect on whatever prospect there is for negotiating a settlement to that very difficult conflict.

There's an opposite view, that they might not do this, that you might cause huge trouble. But also, how does it affect other problems down the line? How does this move affect this very difficult, complicated world?

I think when the United States acts decisively, it strengthens the influence of the United States.

Secondly, I believe that much of the charge against the United States, in the current situation, that we are interested in dominating the Middle East, that we are interested in Iraqi oil, for example, much of the charge against us will be blown away by our behavior in the aftermath of the success.

So one of the sources of anti-Americanism, which is this slander about our motives, will be decisively contradicted by our behavior. We're not going to steal Iraq's oil. It's going to go to the people of Iraq. We're not going to dominate the region. We're going to stay only long enough to permit Iraqis to achieve a stable government. And then we'll be gone.

And the idea that is used to animate anti-American feeling -- that we are rapacious, that we are imperialist -- will have been demonstrated to be false. So in this one situation in Iraq, there is the potential both to transform the region and perceptions of the United States.

Kenneth Pollack
Former analyst, CIA and National Security Council

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Is it a remaking of the Middle East?

I don't think it's clear yet whether the Bush administration actually believes that invading Iraq will somehow transform the Middle East. There is a real debate within the administration over this. And I'll say for my part, that I think that it is reasonable to suggest that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could be part of broader changes in the Middle East. I think what's important to keep in mind are both the likely timelines and the potential for solving all of the region's problems. And, I think, we have to be very modest about both.

It is conceivable that if the United States removes Saddam Hussein from power and leads an international effort to rebuild Iraq and create a strong democracy there, that this could both succeed, and it could have an influence on other countries in the region. But, these are things that are going to take quite some time. Building a new Iraq, building democracy in Iraq is probably going to take years, if not decades. And the impact on the rest of the region is also likely to take years, if not decades.

By the same token, it is possible that a determined U.S. action in Iraq could have some kind of an impact on other problems in the region -- the Arab/Israeli dispute, the problems in the moderate Arab countries with increasingly disenfranchised youth, stagnant economies, legal and educational systems that are leading them nowhere. But, these are all massive problems, and we should not count on an invasion of Iraq to be the solution to all of them. At best they could help.

At best an invasion of Iraq, if done properly, might open up new opportunities that will allow the United States and our allies to start taking other actions that could address these problems. But I think that it would be dangerous to suggest that all we need to do, to solve all of the problems of the Middle East, is to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Within the Bush administration, there does seem to be a great deal of debate as to whether or not the United States should mount a full-scale invasion of Iraq. But, there does seem to be consensus that if the United States is going to mount that full-scale invasion, if we do go to war to remove Saddam Hussein, that afterwards we must be committed to a long-term effort to rebuilding Iraqi society, and building a functional democratic Iraqi state because any other approach is going to lead to chaos in Iraq. And creating chaos in Iraq will simply be substituting one set of problems for the problems that we already have. That, however, is a very different point from saying that Iraq should become the first of many such endeavors around the world. And that, too, seems to be a real bone of contention within the Bush administration.


Oh, absolutely. And, I think, Colin Powell continues to fight this tooth and nail. I think that there are many within the State Department who have grave doubts about the wisdom of this course of action, and continue to argue over what the United States should do.


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