Oust Saddam, and replace him with whom or what?

Us policy toward iraq has now shifted from containment to the goal of ousting Saddam Hussein from power. No matter how emotionally satisfying the option of removing a thug like Saddam may seem, that strategy is extremely ill-advised. It will make Washington responsible for Iraq's political future and entangle the United States in an endless nation-building mission beset by intractable problems.

Barring a coup against Saddam by one of his equally brutal and corrupt cronies, US military forces would probably have to dislodge him. Some optimists argue that the so-called Iraqi democratic opposition in exile - especially the largest umbrella group, the Iraqi National Congress - can do the job with minimal assistance from the US. That apparently was the logic motivating the 105th Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act and earmark $97 million to support efforts to undermine Saddam's regime. But few knowledgeable analysts take the Iraqi opposition's prospects seriously.

Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of US forces in the Persian Gulf, notes that anti-Saddam forces are rife with factionalism and show little independent initiative. Indeed, the opposition is a motley assortment of 91 groups - running the gamut from Marxist revolutionaries to Islamic fundamentalists. The principal goal of most factions seems to have been extracting funds from a credulous US Congress rather than waging an armed liberation struggle against the Baghdad regime.

That underscores the first major problem with a US commitment to oust Saddam. Not only would American troops be needed to install a new government, but they'd have to protect it from authoritarian elements and create democratic institutions strong enough to survive the eventual departure of US occupation forces. Otherwise, another military dictator - a "new Saddam" - would emerge, and Washington would face a renewed threat to its goal of peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region.

Installing and preserving a democratic Iraqi government would entail a nation-building mission of indefinite duration that would dwarf the effort in Bosnia. The Bosnia mission is now in its fourth year and has already cost US taxpayers some $10 billion.

The unpromising prospects for a stable democratic system in Iraq should be sufficient to dissuade those who want the US military to occupy Baghdad. But there are other 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 face the task of explaining to Americans why 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 would have the US presiding over the dismemberment of Iraq - an action Sunnis and others throughout the Islamic world would 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 incitement for Turkey's Kurdish population - more than half of all Kurds living in the region. Ankara has waged a bloody war for more than 14 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, and Turkish military incursions would be considered a violation of international law. None of this would matter if the US hadn't declared the peace and stability of the Persian Gulf region to be a vital national interest. Trying to stabilize one of the world's most politically turbulent regions has proven to be a frustrating, open-ended objective. Even if Iraq ceases to be a disruptive power, there are certain to be other crises: an Iranian bid for regional preeminence, or a radical revolution against the Saudi monarchy, to mention the two most likely.

As ill-conceived as current US policy may be, a decision to oust Saddam and become responsible for Iraq's political future would be far worse. The US would then be the full-blown successor of the Ottoman and British empires as the colonial overlord in the gulf region. No rational American should be willing to expend the blood and treasure such a mission would require.

*Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, in Washington, D.C.

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