How could a war in Iraq play out for the rest of the Arab world? That's a subject of fierce debate among experts inside and outside of the Bush Administration. The answer depends on how long the war lasts, how many civilian casualties occur, how hard it is to set up a new government in Iraq, and how the neighbors react to a new Baghdad regime. Here are three scenarios:
DRAMATIC REFORM: The dream of the Bush Administration is that regime change and political reform in Baghdad will become a beacon for the region. Euphoric Iraqis would welcome U.S. soldiers as liberators. A U.S. military occupation would give way to a government representing the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.
Over time, a successful, democratic Iraq that pursued free-market economics could become a key player in the Arab world. As such, it could serve as a model for more restrictive neighbors like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, or the gulf states, where reforms are already under way and pressure for change is growing. Getting rid of Saddam "can have an incredibly positive effect throughout the region," says Elizabeth Cheney, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
In a Middle East energized by reform, women in strict regimes such as Saudi Arabia might be able to play a larger role in the economy. More active privatization programs throughout the region could attract foreign investment. A growing entrepreneurial elite might begin to weaken the power of existing governments. As opposition groups gain more rights to voice their views, popularly elected bodies accountable to the people might finally wrest real power from authoritarian regimes.
LITTLE CHANGE: It's also possible that the U.S. could oust Saddam, but life would go on elsewhere as it has for decades. A restive Iraqi population might spur the U.S. to pull out quickly and hand over power to a gentler strongman. In this case, no ripples of reform would wash across Iraq's borders. Corrupt and incompetent as the Arab dictators and monarchs in the region are, they have proved remarkably resilient over the decades and quite effective in retaining power. That may not change. After all, it has been more than 20 years since the Iranian revolution, the last time a popular uprising overthrew a government in the region.
How would the regimes deal with growing critics? One way might be to create parliaments where opposition members could voice some opinions but have limited clout. That's happening already in Bahrain, Oman, and Egypt. "The predominant thinking among Arab government elites is, `what we're doing is working,"' says Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, who recently left the U.S. State Dept., "If we open up too much, we put that in jeopardy."
These states may have both the desire and ability to stave off change. They "have managed to survive through some pretty terrible times, including economic slumps and booms and wars," notes William B. Quandt, a Middle East expert at the University of Virginia and a former National Security Council official. "I wouldn't write off the system as you see it now." And the U.S. may not have the stamina to stick around long enough to change things. "The region is just too huge and complex for the U.S. to reengineer the Middle East," says one Arab intellectual.
CHAOS: Washington's nightmare is a military operation that prompts Saddam to unleash weapons of mass destruction on countries that let the U.S. use their bases and on Israel, which might then retaliate. That could bring more Arab states into the fray and set off a chain reaction among Islamic extremists furious that the regimes are supporting the U.S. "An invasion of Iraq could destabilize several countries--Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia," says Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. "I think you would see an Islamic backlash throughout the region." Some analysts fear the shock waves could reach as far as Pakistan, raising the prospect of extremists seizing control of a state that has nuclear weapons.
Even if the regional rulers manage to retain their hold on power, Iraq itself could degenerate. While many analysts believe the country wouldn't break apart, its history suggests that instead of a transformation toward democracy, a series of military coups could determine the leadership. The ultimate winner could well be unfriendly to the U.S.--and eager to resurrect a deadly weapons program. Instead of a beacon for the rest of the region, Iraq could end up as one of the biggest failures of American foreign policy in decades.
By Stan Crock in Washington