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Questions on Iraq

Winning the after-war in Iraq could prove harder than the administration is letting on. Are there obstacles ahead for the United States?

11:00 PM, Mar 4, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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WAR IS SUCH a foregone conclusion that the interesting debates now revolve around postwar Iraq. Time magazine's cover story this week reports that the Bush administration has decided on an immediate course of action for the days and weeks following Saddam's fall: A wave of humanitarian aid will be distributed in the wake of the U.S. Army's front line as it swoops north towards Baghdad; after our forces have effectively taken over the country, General Tommy Franks will become MacArthur for an as-yet-undetermined period of time; a large number of U.S. troops (estimates are anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000) will remain in-country for, as President Bush helpfully tells us, "as long as necessary, and not a day more."

At the end of this ordeal, the administration says Iraq "should be truly free and democratic." Iraq will act as a beacon to the rest of the Middle East, showing "the power of freedom to transform that vital region;" and "success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state."

These visionaries may well be right. Certainly the prospect of a democratic state in the center of that volatile region is enticing, and would benefit all parties. Yet success isn't inevitable, and there are several questions that the Bush administration should answer in the coming weeks:

How long--and how many troops--will it likely take to secure and administer Iraq? Most of the people who ask this question are isolationists trying to make the case against war, but it's an important question nonetheless.

Last week Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki testified before Congress that "something on the order of several hundred thousand" troops might be needed in postwar Iraq. Deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz told reporters that Shinseki's estimate was "wildly off the mark."

Yes, America should commit however many troops are needed for however long it takes. But we must realistically calculate the cost so that we can take steps to meet our other obligations. Since 1991 the U.S. Army has shrunk from 18 divisions to 10, the Navy from 580 ships to 301, the Air Force from 165 air wings to 91.

Remember back in July 2001 when President Bush was short-changing the armed forces mightily? (It was so bad that in this magazine William Kristol and Robert Kagan called on Donald Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz to resign on principle.) The administration even abandoned the military's long-held two-war strategy.

If hundreds of thousands of troops are committed to Iraq for the near term, we place an awfully large wager on the good behavior of Kim Jong Il and other bad actors. It could be that we need a significant defense build-up.

Who will lead the new Iraq? Everyone wants a piece of the action. The Iraqi National Congress has been planning to return to Baghdad for years, but can they provide real leadership?

It makes sense for the administration to publicly put off answering this question for as long as possible--no need to rankle people who won't be chosen before you have to. But we would hope that smart people like Condoleezza Rice are spending lots of time thinking about it. Peter Beinart raises a grim possibility when he worries that "in the name of stability, Riyadh and Foggy Bottom will settle on an Iraqi Pervez Musharraf."

What if radical Islam is incompatible with democracy? It's the elephant in the room. Jeffersonian posturing aside, the extremist Islam present in the Middle East may not be compatible with democracy. It's a depressing thought, but look at Kuwait. In an excellent Washington Post story last week, Susan Glasser described the results of Kuwait's modified half-experiment with democracy.

Kuwait is among the wealthiest and most liberal Middle Eastern states, with a free press and what Glasser calls a "thriving civil society." When the United States liberated Kuwait in 1991, the ruling family promised to revive the National Assembly and give women the right to vote.

Twelve years later, women still can't vote and the parliament has limited influence over the emir--but this last might be a good thing, since the elected parliament is dominated by Islamic fundamentalists with sympathies for Yasser Arafat and Osama bin Laden. And, as Abdul Razak Shuyji, one of the Islamic fundamentalist leaders, observes, "Whenever there is true democracy, the Islamists will prevail."