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After Saddam, What?

A postwar Iraq could make Afghanistan look like a picnic.



You will not read anything with my byline on it that says Saddam Hussein is a good guy who should have gainful employment as a despot until he decides to retire to a comfortable island villa in the Persian Gulf. Being a citizen of the United States and a Jew, I am a prime target for the terror minions he funds, a two-fer special. During the Gulf War, I heard a Scud explode near my parents' home in Israel via a telephone call. But as the beat of the war drums grows louder and more ominous, somebody somewhere has to ask a very important question: What will a post-Saddam world look like?

Forget for a moment the blowback that comes with eliminating Saddam -- loss of life on both sides, massive unrest on Arab streets that could topple regimes in Africa and the Middle East, the potential for global economic collapse, and the very real threat of world war.

Let's fast-forward past all those concerns, for argument's sake, and visit Baghdad after the war.

Who's in charge? The Kurds? The Shi'a? Or some sort of coalition government that will neatly stitch together the disparate ethnic and religious elements that were brought together, Frankenstein-like, to create Iraq in 1932?

Saddam is gone, probably dead, his reign ending in violence like that of nearly everyone who has deigned to run Iraq -- where, until Saddam, the average Iraqi leader had the lifespan of a housefly. But is the country stable? Can we win a war without devastating the nation's infrastructure? Are the weapons of mass destruction we are so worried about in safe hands?

History, both ancient and recent, does not offer much hope. In 1994, long-simmering rivalries between the two main Kurdish camps erupted into a civil war claiming hundreds of lives. Arab writer Said Aburish wrote last year that the Kurdish disputes are only one of many problems. "Iraq's Shi'as, 60 percent of the population, are equally split," Aburish wrote in a November 2001 issue of New Statesman. "Some want an Iraq with close ties to Shi'a Iran; others insist they are Arabs and that, to succeed, they should depend on fellow Arabs, namely Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. A third group believes in co-operating with the U.S., and accordingly gets paid for it. The U.S. and U.K. are reluctant to help the two Shi'a groups that command real followings inside Iraq, largely because Daawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq are Islamic fundamentalist."

None of the other scores of so-called Iraqi opposition groups are much good either, writes Aburish: "Recently, I examined my notes of the lengthy interviews I conducted with 82 Iraqi opposition leaders. I began identifying those on my list whose thinking resembles Saddam's. To my horror, I decided that 75 of the people I interviewed were men who would kill to achieve their goal."

So what's left after he's gone? An Afghanistanized mess.

And now, back to the blowback. Iraq is far more volatile than Afghanistan ever was. Where Afghanistan is surrounded by neighbors who have no will, or ability, to take advantage of the power vacuum that has existed since the Soviets were sent packing, Iraq shares a very large border with Iran, against which it launched what turned out to be an incredibly bloody eight-year war that cost more than a million lives and the loss of billions of dollars in mutually wrecked economies, all for virtually nothing in terms of geopolitical gain.

When post-Saddam Iraq becomes Afghanistan -- and it probably will -- the resulting vacuum may very well suck Iran into the fray. And depending on what happens with the Kurds, Turkey -- on Iraq's northern border -- may get involved, if for no other reason than to prevent unrest among Turkish Kurds.

The anger on Arab streets could boil over, toppling U.S.-friendly regimes in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and elsewhere. In the very likely event that Saddam gets off a few Scuds before he and his Republican Guard are flattened, Israel will defend itself, setting the stage for potential regional war.

And as an already-stretched U.S. military finds itself bogged down, quite possibly alone, in the quagmire of Iraq, China may take advantage by launching an assault on Taiwan, followed by a similar North Korean attack on South Korea. And who knows what might happen in the Philippines, where U.S. forces are already trying to stamp out al Qaeda-linked extremists before they can take over.

Finally, as much as I hate to agree with anything mush-mouthed Al Gore has to say, he did make a point when he excoriated Bush's military longings. "After September 11th, we had enormous sympathy, good will, and support around the world," the AP quotes Gore as saying. "We've squandered that and in one year replaced that with fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, not at what the terrorists are going to do but at what we are going to do."

None of this is to say, however, that Saddam should be left in power. He is clearly a dangerous man with dangerous ideas. But no discussion of getting rid of Saddam should take place without talking about what's next.

This article first appeared in slightly different form in Philadelphia's City Paper.

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