While public attention is focused on a US military build-up for war in Iraq, the Bush administration is quietly thinking through what comes after Saddam Hussein.
Exiled Iraqi opposition leaders met with President Bush last week, and are due to meet among themselves in the next few days in the northern Iraqi town of Salahuddin. Their aim is to participate in the transition to democracy after Mr. Hussein has left the scene. Like most politicians, their ambition is to lead, as well as participate. This isn't as simple as it seems, for the exiled Iraqi opposition is fragmented and, come Hussein's departure, will face competition for power from the opposition to Hussein that has remained inside Iraq.
That opposition is underground - very underground, for Hussein disposes of it quickly when it raises its head - but it will undoubtedly emerge when Iraq is liberated.
Iraq is thus likely to face the same jostling between internal and external dissidents as confronted South Africa when blacks came to power, and as overtook Afghanistan after the Taliban's overthrow, and as will confront Cuba after Fidel Castro's eclipse.
Clearly the US, which will spearhead any military liberation of Iraq, will have to assume major responsibility for establishing civilian order and political stability.
The exiled dissidents said Mr. Bush told them he wants a short military occupation in Iraq and a speedy transition to democracy.
That's in line with his promise in a West Point speech in June when he said the US "has no territorial ambitions. We don't seek an empire. Our nation is committed to freedom for ourselves and for others."
Early administration ponderings about what should succeed Hussein revolved around a military government such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur headed in Japan after World War II. Those have been wisely discarded. Wisely, because such a regime would be intensely irritating to much of the Arab world, and smack of colonialism.
Instead, according to documents obtained by The New York Times last week, the administration now seems bent on a military presence for perhaps 18 months to maintain security, while a strong civilian administrator gets the country running and nurtures the seeds of democracy. This could be an American, or a nominee from the UN.
No names are being leaked for this critical role, but several come to mind. Former Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine has successfully undertaken a number of difficult nation-uniting missions. Seasoned US diplomats with expertise in the area include Frank G. Wisner, Richard W. Murphy, and Thomas Pickering. Press speculation suggests that Secretary of State Colin Powell will not serve a second term in a Bush presidency. He is a doubtful candidate for Iraq, unless in retirement he could be persuaded of the assignment's importance. If one looked for a soldier-turned-civilian, there is Norman Schwarzkopf, the victor of the earlier Gulf War campaign. Any nominations from the UN would include Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who played a similar role in Afghanistan.
Thus Bush, who in his presidential campaign played down a nation-building role for the US, has been thrust into it by events. If you're a world leader disposing of dictators, you must pick up the pieces and stay around to help build democracy. It is expensive, and challenging. As a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) study group declared about the post-Hussein outlook: "Reconstruction of Iraq will be difficult, confusing, and dangerous."
On the economic front, existing active oil fields must be swiftly secured during military operations. After liberation, the CFR group estimates $30 billion to $40 billion of new investment will be needed to restore productive wells and develop new ones. The US and other oil-dependent countries have a vested, and reasonable, interest in restoring Iraqi production to the levels of earlier years.
But this must be done while convincing Iraqis that the oil remains theirs, and its marketing will underpin their progress and economic development.
Politically, the villains of the Hussein regime must be brought to justice. The talented, oppressed populace must become confident in freedom. Diverse groups and factions must subdue their differences in the quest for democracy.
If the substantial US role in all this is inept, the harvest will be years of anti-American suspicion and rancor in the region. If it is successful, Iraq could become an example for democratic reform and economic progress in other tormented lands of the Arab world.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.