The War After Iraq

(Stratfor, Dec 11, 2002)


For the United States, fighting and winning a war against Iraq has become a strategic imperative. Although it is true that this war could engender greater support for al Qaeda among the Islamic masses, the consequences of not attacking Baghdad -- from Washington's perspective -- could be worse. But even more important, a victory and U.S. occupation of a conquered Iraq would reshape the political dynamic in the Middle East. The United States would be in a position to manipulate the region on an unprecedented scale.


The current struggle over the soul of the weapons inspection process in Iraq must not divert attention from the primary strategic reality: The world's only superpower has decided that the defeat and displacement of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime is in its fundamental national interest. That superpower prefers that its allies and the United Nations concur with its position, but this preference should not be mistaken for a requirement.

Washington is prepared to wait a reasonable length of time to procure that support -- particularly since its own military strategy dictates that operations should not begin until January. Nevertheless, regardless of the stance the U.N. and U.S. allies have adopted, there is little doubt that the United States will press forward and, in all likelihood, will defeat and occupy Iraq.

There are some negative reasons for this. It is no longer politically possible for the Bush administration to abandon its quest. By this, we do not mean politically in a domestic sense, although that is a consideration. Of far greater importance are the political consequences the United States would incur in the Islamic world if it did not carry out its threats against Iraq. Many have pointed to the potential consequences of waging a war -- namely exciting greater support for al Qaeda among the Islamic masses -- but public debate has neglected to consider the consequences of inaction.

Al Qaeda persistently has argued that the United States is fundamentally weak. From Beirut in the 1980s to Desert Storm, Somalia and now the Afghan war, the United States, the argument goes, has failed to act decisively and conclusively. Unwilling to take casualties, Washington either has withdrawn under pressure or has refused to take decisive but costly steps to impose its will. Al Qaeda has argued repeatedly that the United States should not be feared because, at root, it lacks the will to victory.

Should the United States -- having made Iraq the centerpiece of its war-making policy since last spring -- decline engagement this time, it would be another confirmation that, ultimately, the United States lacks the stomach for war and that increasing the pressure on Washington is a low-risk enterprise with high potential returns. In other words, at this point, the political consequences of failing to act against Iraq might reduce hatred of the United States somewhat but will increase contempt for it dramatically.

Machiavelli raised the core question: Is it better for a prince to be loved or feared? He answered the question simply -- love is a voluntary emotion; it comes and it goes, but it is very difficult to impose. Moreover, it is an emotion with unpredictable consequences. Fear, on the other hand, is involuntary. It can be imposed from the outside, and the behavior of frightened people is far more predictable. This is the classic political problem the United States faces today. Washington cannot possibly guarantee the love of the Islamic world. Therefore, it cannot guarantee that if it does not attack Iraq, Islamic hatred for the country will subside. But it is certain that if it does not attack, fear of the United States will decline. According to this logic, the United States cannot decline war at this point.

War is the issue; voluntary regime change is not. It is not only important that Hussein's government fall, it is equally important that the United States be seen as the instrument of its destruction and the U.S. military the means of his defeat. Given the logic of its strategy, the United States must defeat the Iraqi army overwhelmingly and be seen as imposing its will. It must establish its military credibility decisively and overwhelmingly.

The reasons go beyond transforming the psychology of the Islamic world. The United States has direct military reasons for needing to defeat Iraq in war. From Washington's viewpoint, any outcome must allow the United States to occupy Iraq with its own military forces. This is not because it needs to govern Iraq directly, although demonstrating control over a defiant Islamic country would support its interests. Nor is oil the primary issue, although this would give the United States some serious bargaining power with allies. The primary reason is geography.

If we look at a map, Iraq is the most strategic country between the Levant and the Persian Gulf. It shares borders with Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait and, most of all, Saudi Arabia. If the United States were to occupy Iraq, it would be there by right of conquest. Unlike any other country in the region, the United States would not have to negotiate with an occupied Iraq. It would have ample room for deploying air power in the heart of the region. More important, it would be able to deploy a substantial ground force capable of bringing pressure to bear within a 360-degree radius. Within a matter of months, the United States would become the most powerful military force native to the region.

Consider some of the consequences. For example, the Saudi royal family currently is caught between two fears: the fear of al Qaeda sympathizers inside and outside the family and fear of the United States. On the whole, officials in Riyadh fear al Qaeda sympathizers somewhat more than they fear the United States. They will attempt to placate the United States, but they are not prepared to make the kind of fundamental, internal changes needed to act meaningfully against al Qaeda sympathizers.

With several U.S. armored divisions on the nation's borders, however, the Saudi calculus must change. When Iraq deployed forces against Saudi Arabia, Riyadh relied upon the United States to protect its interests. If U.S. forces deploy on its borders, who will come to Saudi Arabia's aid then? Riyadh's assumption always has been (1) that the United States, concerned about Iraq and Iran, could not turn on Saudi Arabia and (2) that the United States lacked the military means to turn on it. All of that is true -- unless the United States has occupied Iraq, has control of the Iranian frontier and perceives Saudi Arabia as a direct threat because it has failed to control al Qaeda. The Saudi fear factor then would change dramatically and so, one suspects, would its actions.

Similarly, the threat to Iran from U.S. ground and air forces also has been extremely limited. Iran's western frontier has been secure since Desert Storm, and the country has been relatively insulated from U.S. power. Domestic affairs have developed in relative security from the United States or any external threat. If the United States occupies Iraq, the Iranian reality will be fundamentally changed. This does not mean that Iran will become pro-American -- quite the contrary, it might retreat into rigidity. But it will not stay the same.

Following a war in Iraq, the United States would become the defining power in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. It is difficult to imagine any coalition of regional nation-states that could emerge either to oust or control the United States. Even in the event that a tide of anti-Americanism ripped the region apart, the objective strategic equation would not permit a coalition of regional forces to mount a substantial challenge to the United States. To the contrary, Washington would be in a position to manipulate the region on an unprecedented scale. It also would be able to mount operations against al Qaeda throughout the region much more effectively than it can today and, we should add, without requesting permission.

The downside of this strategy is obvious and much-discussed. Hatred and resentment of the United States will run deep, and this undoubtedly will generate more recruits for al Qaeda, at least in the short run. Certainly, al Qaeda will continue its strategy of striking at U.S. targets where and when it can. If the United States attacks Iraq against European wishes, the Europeans potentially might withdraw intelligence collaboration, thus increasing U.S. vulnerability. These are not trivial concerns, and Washington takes them seriously.

But ultimately, Washington appears to believe that the upside of an occupied Iraq trumps the downside.

1. It is true that al Qaeda recruitment might rise, but al Qaeda does not have a problem with recruitment now. Not only do its core operations not require large numbers of operatives, but in fact, they cannot use large numbers because they depend upon stealth and security, both of which make large-scale recruitment impossible. It will be difficult to turn intensified hatred into intensified, effective operations. Random attacks in region doubtless will increase, but this will be a tolerable price to pay. Ultimately, al Qaeda already operates at its structural capacity and cannot capitalize on increased sympathy for its cause.

2. Any government in the region will have to reassess the fundamental threat it faces. With a U.S. presence in Iraq, Saudi leaders, for example, will recalculate their interests. A pro-al Qaeda government would become the target of a very real U.S. regional power. A neutral government would come under tremendous U.S. pressure, including the threat of attack. Governments -- and not only that in Saudi Arabia -- would find it in their interest to suppress the growth of al Qaeda sympathies, in collaboration with the United States.

3. European states will not abrogate relations with the United States no matter what it does in Iraq. Ultimately, al Qaeda and militant Islam are as much a threat to Europe as to the United States. Ending intelligence cooperation with the United States would hurt Europe at least as much as Washington. Moreover, Europe is vulnerable to the United States in a range of economic areas. A successful operation in Iraq, once concluded, would create a new reality not only in the region but globally. The Europeans might accelerate development of an integrated defense policy -- but then again, even this might not happen.

The U.S. view, therefore, apparently is that a post-war world in which U.S. forces operating out of Iraq establish a regional sphere of influence -- based on direct military power -- is the foundation for waging a regional war that will defeat al Qaeda. The United States does not expect to obliterate either al Qaeda or related groups, but it does expect to be able to further contain the network's operations by undermining the foundations of its support and basing in the region. Washington also would be able to control the regional balance of power directly, rather than through proxies as it currently must. In effect, the era in which Washington must negotiate with a state like Qatar in order to carry out essential operations will end.

What is most interesting here is that, ultimately, it doesn't matter whether the Bush administration has clearly thought through these consequences. The fact is that no matter Washington's intent, the conquest of Iraq will have this outcome. History frequently is made by people with a clear vision, but sometimes it is the result of unintended consequences. In the end, history takes you to the same place. However, in our view, the Bush administration is quite clear in its own mind about how the region will look after a U.S.-Iraq war. We suspect that the risks are calculated as well.

1. The United States might get bogged down in a war in Iraq if enemy forces prove more capable than expected and -- facing high casualties in Baghdad -- Washington might be forced to accept an armistice that would leave it in a far worse position psychologically and geopolitically than before.

2. The consequences of U.S. occupation might be the opposite of what is expected. A broad anti-U.S. coalition could form in the region, and al Qaeda might use the changed atmosphere to increase its regional influence and to intensify anti-U.S. operations.

3. European leaders actually might shift from making speeches to supplying direct military support for Saudi Arabia and other states in the region against the United States.4. Prior to an attack, U.S. public opinion might shift massively against a war, making it impossible for the United States to act. Once again, the superpower would appear to be all talk, no action.

Officials in Washington believe none of these things will happen. This view ultimately will prove either correct or incorrect. But in understanding what is transpiring with Iraq, this must be understood as the core U.S. perception. It is what drives the United States forward. From Washington's point of view, this is the clearest path to taking the initiative away from al Qaeda and reshaping regional power in such a way as to deny it effective sanctuary -- even though this strategy undoubtedly will spawn further hatred of the United States.

Copyright 2002 Strategic Forecasting LLC. All rights reserved.

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