Ozymandias Redux

How can the U.S. avoid creating its own "colossal wreck" in post-Saddam Iraq?


Watching the footage of coalition troops and Iraqi civilians pulling statues of Saddam Hussein to the ground, it's tough not to think of Shelley's great short poem "Ozymandias of Egypt," in which a "traveller" recounts stumbling across a half-buried monument to a long-ago tyrant in the middle of the desert:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

To be sure, the meaning of such an iconoclastic spectacle varied greatly depending on the audience. Many Arab Americans cheered: "This is the day we have been waiting for," one told The Detroit News. So did many Iraqis, including Yusuf Abed Kazim, a Baghdad imam who took a sledgehammer to the pedestal of a toppled statue of Saddam. "I'm 49," he said but I never lived a single day. Only now will I start living." Others were not so sanguine. "Those who applauded the collapse of Lenin's statue for some Pepsi and hamburgers felt the hunger later on and regretted what they did," a Lebanese schoolteacher told the AP. Reuters, relying partly on Al Jazeera accounts, reports widespread "shock and denial" among Arabs at the surprisingly anti-climactic ouster of Saddam's regime.

Whatever one's perspective on the legitimacy or lasting efficacy of the invasion of Iraq, the most pressing question for Americans is this one: How can we avoid our own Ozymandias moment in the days and months—and years—to come? However welcoming any population may be to a liberating army, that sentiment can rapidly dissipate and turn to resentment and anger.

For the U.S. to take full advantage of the moment—and to deliver on its long-shot promises to make Iraq a "beacon of democracy" in the Middle East—it needs to quickly enact an agenda that will simultaneously consolidate the benefits of deposing Saddam and minimize resentment against America. This means the Bush administration must underscore the benefits of its actions to the world writ large, especially including those most skeptical or hostile to the United States. This may well be an ostensibly thankless task, but it is the best hope of truly establishing a more stable and humane geopolitical order. Actions should include the following:

? Creating an international coalition that will oversee the reconstruction of Iraq and the establishment of representative democracy there. This need not be the United Nations, which has continually proved itself to be the feckless, irrelevant, yammering body even its supporters know it to be. But the Bush administration should recognize that an international coalition will mean more countries have a stake in the success of post-Saddam Iraq and Middle Eastern stability, rather than secretly hoping for a fiasco whose fault can be laid at the feet of the American hegemon. President Bush has signaled that the U.N. will play a "vital role" in the rebuilding of Iraq; he needs to specify quickly and exactly what that means. From a purely realpolitik perspective, bringing in other countries will help insulate the U.S. against any looming failures (and there will doubtless be many). Regardless of what comes next, the U.S. will retain the lion's share of credit for deposing Saddam. There's no reason to dampen respect (however grudging) for that by insisting on U.S. control of the rebuilding effort.

? Making sure that the humanitarian benefits of deposing Saddam do not get muddled by accusations of U.S. self-interest. While every nation recognizes that all foreign policy decisions are self-interested, the Bush administration needs to make barely plausible claims that this war was for oil and the like as untenable as possible. The extent to which private U.S. interests benefit from post-war contracts and the like will greatly determine world opinion toward the larger invasion. The Bush administration has talked consistently about putting proceeds from Iraqi oil sales into an inviolable trust that will benefit Iraqis; it needs to do that immediately. It needs to insulate itself as much as possible from what might be called its "Haliburton problem" by directing contracts and spoils away from administration cronies. Retired U.S. Gen. Jay Garner, who will be interim administrator of Iraq, got off to a good start by putting the kibosh on American plans to sell water to Iraqi vendors in Umm Qasr. Regardless of any possible benefits to that plan (including a more efficient distribution of scarce resources), the U.S. should take great pains to be viewed as selfless.

? Making clear that the U.S. does not have grand imperial and unilateral designs on the Middle East. In the face of impending victory in Iraq, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz cast a long look at Syria—a regime whose human rights record and connections to terrorism are appalling—and declared that regime change is absolutely necessary there. Other Bush administration officials have made similar comments, implying that military action against Syria is imminent. On the other hand, Secretary of State Colin Powell has stated, "It seems that there is a constant desire by everybody to accuse us of invasion operations. That didn't, and won't, take place." While such contradictory statements can serve diplomatic purposes, the U.S. should recognize that, whether acknowledged openly, ridding the world of Saddam will be seen largely as a positive outcome, especially if it is not seen as the start of an imperial adventure.

  • Moving quickly to make good on promises to negotiate a Palestinian-Israeli peace, including a Palestinian homeland. In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration talked a lot about how it was on the verge of calling for a Palestinian state when the terrorist attacks came. Since then, it has continued that line. While the Palestinian question is not directly related to the Iraqi situation or to 9/11, immediately starting serious negotiations on the issue will assuage skeptics in Europe and especially the Middle East that the U.S. is serious in its goals of bringing lasting peace—as opposed to simply self-interested advantage—to the region. At the same time, the U.S. needs to publicly rededicate itself to those aspects of the war on terror that have widespread support even among Islamic nations.
  • Making a clear and credible report regarding any and all weapons of mass destruction. The existence of these were, along with never fully credible reports of links between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda, the basic justification for the invasion. In order to hold ourselves to the level of scrutiny and justification we rightly hold other nations to, the U.S. needs to make a full accounting of this matter, even if it works against America in the short run.

The test that the United States faces going forward is vastly more difficult than the one it has just completed. It needs to be as magnanimous in victory as it was successful in battle. That's no easy task for any conquering power, but it may be the one tactic that will keep us from replacing Saddam Hussein's despicable "colossal wreck" with one of our own.