Barring an unlikely volte-face by Saddam Hussein in allowing unhindered and intrusive UN-arms inspections, military confrontation with his regime seems inevitable. However, if past tragedies are to be averted, any military action this time must be accompanied by a clearly spelled out political vision for a new Iraq.
"Ejecting" Mr. Hussein from Kuwait was the professed be-all and end-all of the 1991 Gulf War. Once achieved with minimal loss of American lives, the United States purged itself of the "Vietnam syndrome" and began ticker-tape parades back home.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, Hussein's best Army units were left unscathed to fight another day yet again, against their own people, who had risen against the dictator in their millions at the urging of the senior President Bush.
But if the political ramifications of the Gulf War were not thought through by the first Bush administration, President Clinton's policy was even more dangerously shortsighted.
It was called "containment" and purported to keep Hussein "in a cage." The piecemeal disintegration of Iraq, the suffering of its people under sanctions, and the fact that Hussein was freely roaming the world in pursuit of components for his weapons of mass destruction, did not seem to matter.
Then there was Sept. 11, and America woke up to realities that some of its politicians and bureaucrats had chosen to ignore. But if the argument over the menace that Hussein represents appears to have been finally settled in the US, another more ferocious debate has now gripped Washington: Who is to replace Saddam Hussein?
As related graphically by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker last month, this is not a battle of ideas and competing visions. Alas, it bears all the hallmarks of the bureaucratic wrangling, turf-grabbing, and personal score-settling that has plagued US policy toward Iraq. Amid this spectacle, the people of Iraq have been reduced to helpless, apprehensive spectators.
Most Iraqis believe Washington is asking the wrong question. It is not so much who will replace Hussein, but what kind of government will take his place that matters most to them. Iraqis know there are no "obvious" successors to Hussein today. Hussein has made sure of that; he killed them all.
The assumption in certain quarters in Washington that there are generals with "a following" in the Army, let alone in the country, is self-deluding. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Hussein killed his own brother-in-law, Adnan Khairallah, precisely because it was rumored that he had acquired some popularity among the officer corps. As every Iraqi officer and official knows, being popular can be extremely hazardous.
For almost 34 years, Iraq has been ruled by the Ba'th Party, the modern Arab version of the German Nazi Party. Hussein and his civilian and military goons are products of this ideology. It is based on racism, glorification of violence, and total submission to "The Leader." This is the true nature of Hussein's Iraq that so few in Washington seem to comprehend.
Iraqi society today is no less traumatized and dysfunctional than that of Germany after World War II. Just as Germany was de-Nazified after that war, Iraq needs the same process if it is to achieve peace and reconciliation. This can only be done within the framework of a democratic and federal state.
Such a vision would displease many in a region dominated by absolutist monarchies and hereditary republics. Orientalists who have made an industry out of telling us how incompatible democracy is with the region's "culture" would also ridicule it. But, then, how attuned was Japan's militarist culture to Western democracy in 1945?
While viewing these propositions sympathetically, many would wonder how they could realistically be attained. The brutal answer is: with overwhelming force and subsequent commitment to democracy, as in Germany. Only this time, nothing like the force that was needed then or during the Gulf War would be required.
IT is not wishful thinking to believe that with the promise of a better tomorrow and guarantees of US resolve to go the distance toppling Hussein and fostering democracy the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, like the people of Afghanistan, would welcome American troops on their soil as liberators.
The rank and file of Iraq's mainly conscript Army will surrender faster than that of the Taliban. But first get the vision right and proclaim it loudly.
Siyamend Othman is an independent Iraqi analyst.