Everything Looks Like a Nail

Where will we be once the shooting stops?


"Greatest British tank victory since WWII," read a headline in the UK Daily Express last week, describing a 14-0 shutout by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards at Basra. An Esquire magazine correspondent, embedded with the 101st Airborne division, described the final assault on Baghdad as being "Like a World War II advance."

These and other Second World War comparisons have been flying fast and furious in the past week or so, as Iraqi resistance to the US/British invasion has proven strong enough to merit a real fight. Whatever awaits soldiers and marines now on the outskirts of Baghdad, the difficulties encountered on the drive to the Iraqi capital have proven to be a left-handed gift to President Bush.

On the plus side, the tough fighting has kept the domestic discussion almost entirely on military affairs. If there's one thing Americans love, it's to feel like we're fighting World War II all over again. On the face of it, any comparison between the lopsided conquest of Iraq and the (also lopsided, but often in doubt) destruction of the Axis is absurd. (To give just one example, consider how relatively harmless this conflict's much-lamented friendly fire incidents have been, compared to the disasters at the Farello Airstrip or Iwo Jima.)

But unbridled combat footage and full-color strategy maps crisscrossed with big arrows have been more than just a sop to kids raised on Time-Life Books' World War II series (about which it was famously said that the subscription lasted longer than the war). They have staved off the political reckoning that ultimately awaits the war's end, when the United States finds itself in custody of a population that is at best not entirely friendly, and faces a host of international challenges. Here are just a few:

What is Blair's reward?

As Jesse Walker noted here recently, British Prime Minister Tony Blair needs, and deserves, to show something for his staunch support of the American-led war. The British contribution in Iraq has been courageous and costly—with a force less than one-fifth the size of the American force in the Gulf region, Britain has already suffered at least half as many casualties as the United States.

British patriotism is comparable to America's, and Blair's diffident public has largely rallied behind the war, but there is another wrinkle to this support: Unlike the Americans, the British are overwhelmingly supportive of a strong United Nations role in Iraq, and consider UN participation one of the necessary outcomes of the war. This support is as widespread among the war's supporters as among its detractors, and Blair will need to deliver a substantial UN role if he wants to avoid looking like an American puppet.

The Bush administration and its various mouthpieces in the press have been openly contemptuous of the UN, and Bush seems to intend a unilateral role in postwar Iraq.

Contempt for the UN may be well-deserved, but if the administration cares about showing any support for Blair (and it may not), it must court the world body, and in particular the many former allies it has infuriated.

The future of regime change

One of the war's more vague selling points was the notion that a free Iraq would inspire neighboring populations, specifically in Iran and Syria, to rise up against their own authoritarian governments. While a free Iraq appears to be a fairly distant goal, it's notable that right now, the popular momentum for regime change is moving in the opposite direction—against American friends like Jordan, Pakistan, and Egypt, all of which have seen large and potentially destabilizing protests.

It's important not to make too much of a mob's whims. Inanition being one of the healthiest and most widely distributed human qualities, it's just as likely that regime change may turn out to have no exportability in either a pro- or anti-western capacity. But the Iraq war's vast unpopularity has so far made the idea of a democratic bloom appear fanciful. The ethics-related downfall of Richard Perle is just one hint that this idea is on the wane even within the administration.

What to do about Syria

The scenario of an indefinitely expanding war that was brilliantly delineated by Josh Marshall recently is an extreme and (one hopes) fantastical view of Bush's ambitions in the Middle East, but on one point it's already proved intriguing: the prediction that the administration may someday use unfound Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for attacking Syria. Last week's war of words between Washington and Damascus was, rhetorically at least, won in a walk by Syrian foreign ministry spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban. But if the United States does have wider regional ambitions, it will need to find a way to press Syria. How?

Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, is a mixed bag. His presidency has never been viewed as wholly legitimate: His accession was constitutionally dubious, he took no interest in politics during his youth, and he essentially inherited the position from his father. Since taking power, he has surrounded himself with his father's circle of advisors. His rhetoric is coarse and simpleminded. He wasn't even his father's first choice to be a successor—that role having been reserved for his daredevil brother Basil, who died in an automobile "accident" in 1994.

At the same time, Bashar shows signs of being a man the West can deal with—provided he survives in power. Conditions in both Lebanon and Syria have improved noticeably since Bashar's accession—thanks at least in part to his shakeup of the country's military/intelligence structure and his reduction of Syria's visible military presence in Lebanon. Syria's attempts at economic liberalization have been far less successful, but there is still some promise in the president's western outlook—promise which the U.K. and Italy (another member of the coalition of the slightly willing) have been eager to exploit. Even Bashar's tacit support of Iraq in recent days may be less an affront to the U.S. than a bone thrown to his own country's hardliners, intended to give him some necessary flexibility in the postwar period.

How could the U.S. exploit this flexibility? To the degree that British and American forces have been seen to be breaking a sweat in the campaign against Saddam, threats against Syria are less credible. It's hard, though not impossible, to imagine the American public getting on board to expand the war to Syria; and most likely the difficulty the U.S. faces in pacifying Iraq will keep the likelihood of a Syrian campaign at or near zero percent. (This situation undoubtedly encouraged Syria to mouth off to the U.S. last week.) Full disclosure: Most of this writer's in-laws live in Lebanon, and an American war on Syria would likely destroy that tiny country all over again. More importantly, it would erode what little support the U.S. has around the world; even Tony Blair would not support it.

Fortunately, that kind of coercion may not be necessary. Even without a gigantic American garrison on his border, Bashar Assad has given sporadic cooperation to the United States. That cooperation is likely to increase with the end of the world's only other Ba'athist state. To the degree that he is reform-minded, the changed situation may actually strengthen his argument against the hard-liners. Bashar is not Saddam: It is possible to appeal to the better angels of his nature, and it would be rash to pretend otherwise.

Making up

The widely despised French and Germans have borne the brunt of public and diplomatic ire over failed prewar diplomacy. But what about Canada and Mexico? The buildup to the war caused enormous diplomatic damage throughout the world. Whether you blame that damage on the Bush administration's feeble diplomacy or the rest of the world's intractability, there will be plenty of fences to mend once the official shooting stops. France and Germany in particular will want to get in on the postwar action, and recent history gives the U.S. a great temptation to say no. Unless the U.S. looks forward to an indefinite occupation of Iraq (and some in the administration still might), it's a temptation that should be resisted. A multinational role in rebuilding Iraq is important to everybody, in particular Blair, whose public favors multilateralism, and who will be in a hurry to repair Britain's relations with the continent. More to the point, a unilateral effort by the U.S. to rebuild Iraq would be economically ruinous. We may want to send the Europeans packing, but we can't afford to.

Other rewards

Jordan's King Abdullah, no doubt envisioning a near future in which his head may no longer be attached to his shoulders, now condemns the war, refers to Iraqi casualties as "martyrs," and even allowed Iraq to return its ambassadors to Jordan shortly after he expelled them in response to U.S. demands. This shift, like his father's support for Iraq in 1991, should not be taken at face value; it is just one example of the contortions the few sympathetic leaders in the Middle East and South Asia have had to perform lately. How they will be rewarded for their fealty is difficult to imagine. One of the central tenets of political Islam is the bankruptcy of the Middle East states; the destruction of Iraq has dramatically revealed that bankruptcy, and it's hard to see Hosni Mubarak's position, or those of the Gulf royalties, being anything but weakened. Americans may not see that as any great loss, but these are leaders who tacitly or overtly supported the American war effort at great personal risk, and to cast them adrift now would set a bad example for anybody who considers doing business with the U.S. in the future.

There are a variety of possible rewards available. Pervez Musharraf asked for and received more access to U.S. textile markets after September 11. The government of Turkey, despite 94 percent popular opposition to the war, did everything in its power to assist the United States, and probably won't even get that kind of compensation. Ultimately, the only reward that will matter to any of these leaders will be for the United States to pick up the Israeli-Palestinian tar baby. No loyal American can do anything but groan at the prospect of taking up this thankless task again, but if the postwar period sees no movement on this conflict, it will be the last straw in discrediting America's allies in the Muslim world.

The doctrine of doctrines

Here's an old truism you'll be hearing more of in the near future: For all the recondite service branches and varieties of MOS designations, the job of the armed services is to kill people and break stuff. If you believe that the American mission in Somalia was ruined by the Defense Department's unwillingness to provide adequate support, there is at least a strong case that Donald Rumsfeld should soon join Les Aspin on the Boulevard of Broken Defense Secretaries. The United States has gone up against the dilapidated military of an impoverished country and will end up (we hope) winning, but winning ugly. With that result, the doctrine of overwhelming force appears once again ascendant. In contrast, the idea that you can get finely tuned solutions to complicated problems through the application of military force will be viewed with renewed skepticism. War is a blunt instrument. This fact, even more than the war's whopping dollar cost, will force a more realistic view of what we can accomplish in the future through military means alone.

This year in Jerusalem

There is unanimous sympathy for the Palestinians in the Islamic world, and widespread sympathy in the world at large. Americans have ignored this fact, ridiculed it, chalked it up to anti-Semitism, and otherwise wished the problem away. (This writer would gladly give two non-adjacent U.S. states over to the two antagonists if it would just shut them up.) President Bush has dealt with the problem by making fairly vague pronouncements, publicly wishing for regime change in the Palestinian Authority, and generally going along with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies in the hope that that would keep things quiet. Back on planet earth, the problem will end with a two-state solution. Everybody knows it, and the creativity of both sides in avoiding this final reckoning makes it even more crucial that the solution be imposed. Again, Blair, who has kept order in his own party by promising that a Palestinian solution will be the first order of business after Iraq is dealt with, is just one of an infinity of U.S. friends who are depending on this.

It's hard not to pity Bush in this instance, or to empathize with his inclination to wave the problem away with kindly expressions and promises about that chimerical "Road Map." (He has made more public references to a Palestinian state than any previous president, but his lack of enthusiasm for the process is clear.) Ultimately, he will have to put his shoulder into this work, and even then there's little reason to believe he'll have any success. There are no blunt instruments to use in this case. The reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hasn't been solved may be that it is insoluble.

One of the most pernicious qualities of war (other than that it kills people) is that it briefly makes the complicated world appear simple—then ends by making the world more complicated than it was before. I would have preferred, after September 11 and a good-faith effort to track Osama bin Laden down in Afghanistan, for the United States to conclude that the Middle East is a dark and dirty place, and wash our hands of the entire region. Bush has chosen a different course, and it will keep him, and us, occupied for a long time. A supposed lesson of September 11 was that we could no longer leave our foreign messes behind. Whether you were for this war or not, accept that we're in the process of making some kind of mess; how we deal with the post-party cleanup is the most vital foreign policy of our age.