Commentary

Overthrow Saddam? Be Careful What You Wish For

Advocates of making the ouster of Saddam Hussein the next stage in America’s war against terrorism are becoming increasingly vocal. The United States has the military power to achieve that goal. Yet no matter how emotionally satisfying removing a thug like Saddam may seem, Americans would be wise to consider whether that step is worth the price. The inevitable U.S. military victory would not be the end of America’s troubles in Iraq. Indeed, it would mark the start of a new round of headaches. Ousting Saddam would make Washington responsible for Iraq’s political future and entangle the United States in an endless nation-building mission beset by intractable problems.

True, some optimists argue that the Iraqi opposition in exile — especially the largest umbrella group, the Iraqi National Congress — can not only defeat Saddam but can set up a stable successor government with only modest assistance from Washington. But as Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, notes, the INC is a motley assortment of groups running the gamut from Marxist revolutionaries to Islamic fundamentalists. That hardly seems the basis for a stable, democratic system.

The reality is that American troops would be needed to install a new government. They also would have to stay on to protect it from authoritarian elements and create democratic institutions strong enough to survive the eventual departure of U.S. occupation forces. Otherwise, another military dictator — a “new Saddam” — would likely emerge. Installing and preserving a democratic Iraqi government would entail a nation-building mission of indefinite duration that would dwarf the ongoing efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo.

The unpromising prospects for a stable democratic system in Iraq should be sufficient to dissuade those who want the U.S. military to march to Baghdad. But there are other, equally daunting problems.

Most notably there is the issue posed by two persistent regional secession movements: the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south. Washington would have to decide whether to commit itself to preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq or to give its blessing to the secessionists. Either option has a serious downside.

Holding Iraq together might take some doing. Attempting to force the Kurds and Shiites to remain under Baghdad’s jurisdiction would probably provoke ferocious resistance. Washington would then face the task of explaining to the American people why U.S. troops were dying in military campaigns to suppress the aspirations of populations that merely want to throw off the shackles of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim elite.

Yet endorsing the creation of independent Kurdish and Shiite states also has drawbacks. U.S. officials would be presiding over the dismemberment of Iraq — an action that the Sunnis (and others throughout the Islamic world) would certainly resent. Dismemberment would also eliminate the only significant regional military counterweight to Iran.

Furthermore, the establishment of an independent Kurdistan would create a thorny problem for Washington’s ally, Turkey. A Kurdish republic would be an irresistible political magnet for Turkey’s Kurdish population — more than half of all Kurds living in the region. Ankara has waged a bloody war for more than 17 years to suppress a Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey. Turkish forces have repeatedly entered northern Iraq since the Gulf War, taking advantage of the fact that Saddam’s regime does not exercise effective control of the area. Turkey would find its difficulties multiplied if rebel forces could find sanctuary in a neighboring Kurdish state.

If credible evidence emerges that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States would have no alternative but to remove Saddam from power despite the potential risks and problems. But absent such a justification, a decision to oust Saddam and become responsible for Iraq’s political future is ill advised.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author or editor of 13 books on international affairs.