Imagining The Day After

The old U.S. embassy in Baghdad hasn't hosted an American ambassador since April Glaspie shipped out just before the 1991 gulf war. Located down an alley in a bustling commercial area of Baghdad, Glaspie's office has been preserved just as she left it. But last Wednesday, the Polish diplomat entrusted to look after U.S. interests in Iraq closed down the office and left the country. It was a move watched with no small amount of interest by the rest of the jittery diplomatic community. The next tenant, they know, could be the man who is in line to administer postwar Iraq: retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner. If so, Garner will find a handy reference book still sitting on Glaspie's shelf: a gold-lettered volume of "American Caesar," William Manchester's biography of the lordly occupation governor of postwar Japan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Back in Washington, U.S. officials who are quietly--and gingerly--making plans for postwar Iraq dismiss comparisons to the imperial MacArthur. The last thing they want to emulate in Iraq is the seven-year occupation of Japan. In fact, some officials at the Pentagon and State Department tell NEWSWEEK they hope to be able to withdraw U.S. troops in as little as 30 to 90 days after President Saddam Hussein's ouster--if Iraq's military can be swiftly purged of his henchmen and turned into a pro-Western security force. That, they admit, is optimistic; more "realistically," says a Pentagon official, the talk is of a maximum five- to six-month occupation. "The plan is to get it done as quickly as possible and get out," says Lt. Col. Michael Humm, a spokesman for the Pentagon's chief planner, Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith.

Administration officials who are part of the Future of Iraq Project, underway since April, caution that no plans are definite. That's in part because they don't know yet which countries will be in the invading coalition, nor what Iraq's political landscape will look like after Saddam. But they are keenly wary of a long-term occupation in the heart of the Arab world, where anxieties about Western invaders date back to the Crusades. "Every day you get past three months, you've got to expect peacekeepers to have a bull's-eye on their head," said one State Department official. So eager are the Bushies to avoid being seen as occupiers that General Garner, who commanded a task force in the Kurdish north in 1991, is tentatively being dubbed "senior civilian administrator" rather than "military governor," NEWSWEEK has learned.

At the White House, where the National Security Council chairs weekly meetings on postwar Iraq, officials say that as coalition support for war has grown, so has their confidence that the occupation's duration can be kept to a minimum. That's in line with the pared-down view of nation-building, shared by President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which emphasizes self-reliance. Central Command is even now identifying Iraqi officers who could be relied on to lead "large portions of the Iraqi military that will be intact and serve," says one official involved in the planning. "Suppose you get in there and then you realize the oilfields and buildings are still intact. Hey, there's a functioning infrastructure here, unlike Afghanistan. And you have people saying, 'I'd like to be part of a [democratic government] to chart the future for Iraq.' There's no reason why you can't do that in 30 to 60 days."

Critics scoff, saying the Bushies are low-balling estimates of the occupation only to assuage Arab opinion. Most outside experts insist any Iraq occupation will be costly and messy, lasting a year at the very least. Among them is Scott Feil, a retired Army colonel and post conflict specialist who plans to tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in hearings this week that Bush has not given Americans a real reckoning of what's ahead. "The last time we tried to low-ball it was Vietnam," says Feil. "We'll be viewed as in and out, wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am. Leaving another basket case in a bad neighborhood, like Afghanistan."

For U.S. occupiers, a civil war or postwar bloodbath is the biggest day-after fear. In the Persian Gulf War, antigovernment rebels took power briefly in at least a dozen cities and brutally killed Baath Party officials, especially in the largely Shiite southern areas. But even if mass reprisals are avoided, the task will be monumental, says Feil. First, Iraq's military and security services, not to mention its judiciary and local civil offices, are riddled with Saddam's minions and criminals, making the task not unlike denazification. "The Republican Guard will have to be largely dismantled from the top down," says Feil. "Then there's the general Army and the police force. Can you do that and then reintegrate the rest into Iraqi society in 90 days--and seize control of the weapons of mass destruction throughout the country?" Another potential trouble spot is Iraq's north, where Turkey, as its price for supplying Washington with a jump-off base in the war, has won a U.S. agreement to move up to 20,000 troops into a region dominated by hostile Kurds, a Turkish official told NEWSWEEK. And only sketchy plans exist for dealing with the expected mass of refugees.

Garner is widely admired as a hands-on, innovative leader who can turn lemons into lemonade. "You always expect to see a pair of pliers sticking out of his back pocket," says retired Gen. Anthony Zinni. But it's hard to escape the contrast between the administration's sometimes grandiose visions for a changed Mideast and the paucity of its actual plans. The only consensus on the post-Saddam government, Bush officials say, is that it will not be handed over to Iraqi exiles. Nor is there much planning as yet on who will fund Iraq's post-Saddam rebirth. Pentagon officials say that Iraq's oil wealth will make a donors' conference, like the one put on for Afghanistan in Tokyo in late 2001, unnecessary. "I don't see the need for panhandling like that," says one. But the U.N. Development Program notes that Iraqi oil revenues are encumbered by some $170 billion in debt and the ongoing U.N. Oil-for-Food Program--whose 46,000 offices will supply postwar humanitarian aid. UNDP says Iraq will still require tens of billions of dollars in international aid in the first few years. Garner might think about picking up that MacArthur book after all.

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