Commentary: The Beltway's Baghdad Fantasy

Americans -- military and civilian alike -- are surprised at how the Iraqis have reacted to the onset of war. They shouldn't be.Instead, they should start operating on a different assumption: that to outsiders, Iraq is for all intents and purposes a black hole. The world actually knows very little about Iraq, despite more than a decade of obsession over the country in Washington. That handicap has major implications for how the war is concluded, and how U.S. efforts to rebuild in the aftermath of war will fare.

Why a black hole? Iraqi society and politics are far less well-mapped than those of other Arab countries, including Egypt and even Syria. In those countries, Western scholars are given substantial freedom to conduct interviews and even study archival material. By contrast, Iraq has long been a paranoid police state walled off from the outside. For Iraqis, it's risky even to talk to foreigners. There are no academic exchange programs, and little if any scholarly research is permitted.

That dearth of expertise on Iraq made it easier for Washington insiders to argue that war would have a quick payoff, analysts say. The few Western experts on Iraq, including scholars such as Toby Dodge of Britain's Warwick University, warned U.S. and British governments about the perils of the Iraq adventure, but in vain. "The civilian staff at the Pentagon took the lead in explaining Iraq to the U.S. and British governments," says Dodge. "Their main source of information was the Iraqi National Congress, whose line was 'this regime will disappear as soon as you put weight on it."'

Thus U.S. policymakers missed the interplay between patriotism and fear that has kept many Iraqis more loyal to the regime than expected -- at least as long as they're not certain that Saddam is dead. "What you have here is a fantasy of Iraq constructed inside the Beltway," says A. Richard Norton, a professor of political science and anthropology at Boston University and a specialist on Shiite Islam.

Another key factor that has been overlooked: Saddam's genius at organization. The dictator has constructed a web of family and tribal connections, patronage, and surveillance, and his Baath Party has several hundred thousand members placed in key posts. These cadres won't necessarily remain loyal to Saddam once he goes, but they will remain a destabilizing force. The U.S. will face a tricky task in deciding how deep the purge of Saddam's people should go. If the U.S. pushes too far, it may alienate vast numbers of Iraqis who could otherwise make useful contributions. If the U.S. doesn't push far enough, democracy in Iraq won't have much hope.

More mistakes could be made in the postwar government, owing to assumptions made by the Americans about how the war's aftermath will play out. The U.S. military plans to occupy the country for six months or more while a U.S.-led civil administration gradually turns government branches over to Iraqis. Already, a government-in-waiting consisting of retired U.S. diplomats, aid officials, and Iraqi exiles favored by the Pentagon, can be found hanging around the hotels of Kuwait.

But other Iraqi opposition figures are already warning about the American plan. "I don't think the initial [U.S.] instinct that we can fix anything with dollars and guns is going to be the answer in this complex region," says Laith Kubba, leader of the Iraqi National Group. "It is not homogenous like Japan or Germany." The Pentagon's heavy reliance on the Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmad Chalabi, is also controversial because he has little appeal inside Iraq.

Skepticism about American postwar plans is rising even among some of the Iraqis whom the U.S. favors. Adnan Pachachi, 79, Iraq's Foreign Minister from 1966-67 and a possible top leader in a new government, launched an effort on Mar. 30 to head off a colonial-style administration. "Very soon there will be a void in the power structure of Iraq, and Iraqis should fill that void," Pachachi told BusinessWeek. "It is not in the interest of the U.S. to prolong its military presence. Their soldiers will be exposed to greater danger as time goes on."

A chilling prediction, perhaps, which few in Washington would have heeded just a short time ago. But it's time for the U.S. to come to grips with what it doesn't know about Iraq. That attitude adjustment won't turn postwar Iraq into a model republic. But it may keep those surprises from multiplying.

By Stanley Reed

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