Think before leaping into war

There should be little mystery about the outcome of an American war on Iraq. History and the neighborhood teach us the necessary lessons. Let us consider two possible scenarios for an attack:

First, the fighting may be bloody on both sides and prolonged. When the US sent troops into Lebanon in 1982 against the Arab consensus, more than 200 Marines and diplomats fell victim to terrorism. The region was enraged against the US. This time, the psychological buildup in the region opposing a war with Iraq is even more intense and widespread, owing in great part to our association with Israel's repression of the second intifada. We can anticipate anti-American acts of terrorism worldwide.

When the 1991 coalition forces fought to free Kuwait, the price of oil shot up but subsided after a quick victory. Allies paid the bills. This time, a longer war will inflate oil prices and the US budget deficit and deflate the world economy. Despite the patriotic drama that will be played out under President Bush's war leadership, his political future will be dimmed by the distress of many families.

Let us assume a second, rosier scenario that goes according to the Pentagon's plans: Fighting is short and free of serious casualties, Saddam Hussein disappears and is replaced by a congenial coalition of our choosing, Iraqis welcome American troops as the Afghans did and only a relatively few troops remain to ensure order. In a few months, the appointed Iraqi leaders hold free elections and a new coalition takes power.

What kinds of policies will the new regime be expected to pursue? Will they serve the interests of American liberators? How will they affect the region?

First, the fresh faces in Baghdad will want to begin the work of reconstruction. That will mean maximizing income from oil production. Decent relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran will be important; all OPEC will share Iraq's interest in keeping oil prices high.

Second, the new regime will have to establish nationalist credentials. There will be little tolerance for breakaway Kurds or Shiites. (If, somehow, Kurdish autonomy is confirmed by the newcomers, won't Turkey's Kurds see an attractive model and Ankara, a threatening one?) Will the new regime yield Iraq's historic claim to Kuwait? Not if it wishes to remain consistent with historic Iraqi nationalism. Further, for Mr. Hussein's first successors, rebuilding conventional military and internal security forces will be a priority. Before long, a truly national regime will have to oppose the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil.

Third, democratically chosen rulers will naturally conform to the Arab consensus on the Arab-Israel conflict, an attitude bound to estrange them from Washington and bring Baghdad closer to Tehran, Damascus, and Cairo.

Fourth, if democracy is seen to work in Iraq, most Arabs will ask, why not in our land as well? The internal pressures on Washington's dependent friends in Amman, Cairo, and Riyadh will mount to open up their prisons and voting booths. Washington won't relish the prospect of Islamic radicals taking power in those capitals.

Fifth, with Iraq liberated, the Bush administration's Middle East agenda will be obliged to focus on an Israel-Palestine solution. That will mean either applying unaccustomed pressure on Prime Minister Sharon or continuing the close support of his policies, abhorred by Arabs. Either way, Washington will have a crisis in its relations with the region.

What is the alternative to these two depressing scenarios? Not an easy one, for it will mean climbing down from the rhetorical heights scaled by Mr. Bush and his war party. Indirect and multilateral diplomacy must be given an honest chance to work. The UN, the Europeans, and the regional Arab states are eager to weigh in with Baghdad to find ways to resume and guarantee truly effective weapons inspections. Baghdad just might be persuaded – given the prospect of yet another devastating defeat.

Bush should also be persuaded – by the danger that either a bloody or rosy regime-change scenario in Iraq could lead to regime change in this country.

• Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service officer with experience in the Middle East since 1964.

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