Perils Of Victory

"He was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined--I learnt that very soon--to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world." President George W. Bush could relate to a guy like that. Yet Alden Pyle, the hero in Graham Greene's 1955 novel "The Quiet American," represents all that Europeans fear about the United States when it sets out, as it appears intent on doing just now, to change the world. "He was," Greene wrote, "as incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others."

Today that deadly tension between high-minded ideals and what seems like willful ignorance of danger has European and Arab leaders in a state of near panic. Members of the Bush administration talk as if war in Iraq will open the way to peace and harmony in the never-peaceful, never-harmonious Middle East; help revitalize the world economy with cheaper oil, and strike a powerful blow against terrorism. But few policymakers close to the action expect those results. None doubt that the United States will win the war, but they anticipate an absolutely murderous aftermath. "We are really scared of a new wave of terror," blurts out one senior official in France. "The consequences will not be immediate," predicts an Arab ambassador at the U.N. "You might see GIs distributing chocolates in the streets of Baghdad and being embraced--for three months. And then the opposition to the new colonial power will emerge, and to any other clients being imposed as Iraqi leaders."

The question is not whether people in the region want more democracy, greater freedoms, a stake in a stable future without the constant threat of war. They're desperate for all that. But there's no confidence that this American administration, or any other, has a genuine long-term commitment to helping them achieve those goals. They've heard the talk too many times before, then seen the Americans walk.

"Surely our friends have learned lessons from the past," President Bush said last week, alluding to Saddam's deceptions and lies, then repeating what appeared to be the line of the day: "This looks like a rerun of a bad movie. And I'm not interested in watching it." But that's not the only historical show in town. As the Europeans and Arabs see it, when the Americans talk about "occupation," they don't have a clue what that means. America has never been occupied, in fact, while in living memory just about every country in Europe and the Middle East has been occupied, or an occupier, or both. They have no illusions about what Rudyard Kipling called "the savage wars of peace."

As the historian C. Vann Woodward pointed out, the brutalizing experience of occupation has never become an acknowledged part of the American experience, so policy tends to be "grounded on the legends of success and invincibility" and "illusions of innocence and virtue." "We sought no territorial aggrandizement, coveted no 'colony,' desired no subject people," said Woodward. "We came to liberate, not to enslave." (Sound familiar?) Yet, writing during the Vietnam War, Woodward noted that "as the years passed and the Vietnamese will to freedom became less conspicuous than American coercion of the Vietnamese, the suspicion grew that we had a deeper commitment to American pride than to Vietnamese freedom."

Ancient history? Perhaps a rerun we just don't want to watch.

To justify the coming operation in Iraq, many in Washington draw analogies with the American (and Allied) occupation that helped democratize West Germany and Japan after World War II. But other precedents are more recent and more relevant: in a report last fall, the Carnegie Foundation cited Haiti and Afghanistan as inauspicious examples. Even closer to the scene is Lebanon, which Israel invaded in 1982 to end terrorism and install a pliant government. At first the tanks of the Tsahal were welcomed with flowers by the Shiites in the south of the country. But a year later, suicide bombers had the Israelis under siege and blew up hundreds of Americans and French who went to help. The United States pulled out in 1984. Israel couldn't extricate itself for 18 years. The history of Iraq--a much bigger and richer country than Lebanon, but every bit as fragmented and complex--suggests that after a U.S. invasion, far from becoming a City on a Hill that provides a shining example, it will be more like a Roach Motel: you can check in, but you can't check out.

"We are against the American policy everywhere, especially in Iraq, but we will not put obstacles in the way of overthrowing Saddam," an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general named Masjidi told a member of the Iraqi opposition recently. "If the Americans stay for more than a few weeks, we will issue fatwas"--that is, religious edicts to kill them.

In fact, every one of Iraq's neighbors has its own agenda for the country. Turkey has threatened military action to stop the Kurds of northern Iraq from seizing the oil capital of Kirkuk. Iran has trained an Iraqi Shiite army to seize power in the south. Syria has spent generations cultivating covert contacts with thugs in the ruling Ba'ath Party. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are desperate to see Iraq's Sunni minority continue to rule, while King Abdullah's cousins in Jordan are active pretenders to the old Hashemite throne in Baghdad. Cynical colonial powers like the British and French knew well how to exploit such divisions. That's one reason they're still hated in the region. Americans tend to step into these conflicts, trying to resolve them, and become targets themselves as they did in Lebanon and Somalia.

Nor are the dangers limited to Iraqi territory. Or even to the Middle East. Terror is one of the world's most thoroughly globalized industries. Late last week the State Department issued a blanket warning to all Americans living outside the United States telling them to keep adequate medicine and food on hand "to ensure they are prepared for an emergency, whether it is a personal emergency or is the result of political or economic unrest, natural disaster, or terrorist attack." They should all be ready to leave the countries where they are living on short notice, the warning suggests.

"What makes you think the front will be in Baghdad and Basra?" asks an Arab intelligence officer who met often with Saddam in the 1980s and 1990s. "Why not in New York, or Washington, or Paris?" Saddam wouldn't even have to give the order. Since 1998 Osama bin Laden has declared, as one of his key justifications for holy war, "the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance"--i.e., the United States and Israel. Just as he blew up the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen and attacked the United States on 9-11 at moments of high emotion in the Muslim world because of the Palestinian issue, he can be expected to time new attacks to coincide with Muslim anger about the war in Iraq.

Israel is already a primary target for terrorists. Even if no Scuds are launched against it, violence there almost certainly will escalate. And there are enormous fears among Israel's Arab neighbors that in the midst of a regional war, the extreme right in Israel might achieve a long-cherished goal: the massive expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories. The government of Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, repeatedly has sought guarantees this will not happen. The government of Ariel Sharon has refused to give them.

Does all this potential chaos mean the United States should give up, turn away, and ignore the theoretical dangers that Iraq may pose? Certainly not. But seasoned Europeans are wondering: why the rush? "Why aren't we concentrating our forces on terrorism?" asks one senior official in Paris. And at the very least, the American public has to be prepared for the dangers that this war may pose. But the Game Boy-like presentation of dozens of U.S. military operations over the past 20 years--lights, gun-cameras, action--hasn't given Americans much sense of the grim realities in store.

There should be no illusions that the reconstruction of Iraq will be anything but difficult, confusing, and dangerous for everyone involved," says a recent working paper from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the James A. Baker Institute at Rice University. "If Washington does not clearly define its goals for Iraq and build support for them domestically and with its allies and partners," the report predicts in its very first paragraph, "the United States may lose the peace, even if it wins the war." The paper offers a blend of prescriptions for a U.S. and then a U.S.-U.N. occupation leading to the creation of a sovereign Iraqi government within two years. But it is laced with dire warnings. The immediate aftermath of fighting will find American troops trying to stop "anarchy, revenge and score-settling," it notes. While the initial goal is to disarm Saddam Hussein, "there is a significant danger that some in the weapons complex will simply 'privatize' technology or systems." That could make weapons of mass destruction more available, not less, to the likes of Osama bin Laden and groups he's helped inspire.

"Refugee flows toward Turkey and especially Iran of up to 1.5 million people are likely," says the Council's paper. And "U.S. forces are ill-prepared for the possibility Saddam will employ chemical weapons against Iraqi civilian targets as a way of slowing the U.S. advance on Baghdad and other major objectives."

Then there's the question of oil and the world economy. "There has been a great deal of wishful thinking about Iraqi oil," says the Council's report. "Put simply, we do not anticipate a bonanza." If the United States tries to run the show in its own interests, "a heavy American hand will only convince [the Iraqis] and the rest of the world that the operation against Iraq was undertaken for imperialist rather than disarmament reasons." A rapid resumption of production in Iraq, say other experts, could send oil prices into the single-digit range--effectively bankrupting countries like Russia, where it costs that much just to get the stuff out of the ground.

A more immediate worry is that, just as Saddam did when he withdrew from Kuwait, he may torch the vast oilfields of southern and northern Iraq--the homes of his enemies, and the likely entry routes for U.S. troops. Unless Saudi Arabia made up the losses, the effect would be to send global oil prices soaring. Former Saudi oil minister Zaki Yamani has suggested $100 a barrel as the possible range.

All these are disturbing scenarios for anyone willing to look at them. So perhaps it's appropriate that, after long delays, Greene's novel "The Quiet American" just went into wide release as a major motion picture. Certainly if there's war in Iraq, you'll have plenty of chances to see high ideals and deadly realities on your home television screen. Let's hope it's a rerun that's not too painful to watch.