IN a major policy speech last week, President Bush went beyond the question of simply ridding Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. He began to define what a postwar Iraq might look like.
"A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region," he said.
Indeed it would - if the United States can somehow pull it off.
Mr. Bush added this idea of setting up Iraq as a model of Arab democracy to his list of reasons for ousting Saddam Hussein late in his preparations for war last year. And yet, to those who otherwise would support this preemptive venture, there's a need for the United States to first make clear how it would deal with the immense challenge of transforming a postwar, postdictatorship Iraq into a stable, thriving democracy.
The problem was well-defined after the 1991 Gulf War by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who was very wary at the time of the US going beyond liberating Kuwait to take over Iraq. He wondered, for instance, how much credibility a new Iraqi government would have if the US had a hand in setting it up. And how long would US forces need to stay to protect the new government?
So far, the Bush-Cheney administration has been largely secretive about what kind of transitional government it would bring to an occupied Iraq and about the long-term costs - in money and perhaps lives - of maintaining a force there. At the least, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has said the US is "completely devoted" to reconstructing Iraq.
That official hesitancy to reveal many details may be due to the complexity of the Iraqi state. It has a long history of internal strife. Like the state formerly known as Yugoslavia, it was an artificial creation following World War I. Saddam Hussein's regime, based in the Sunni Arab community, has waged war on both Shiite Arabs in the south and Kurds in the north.
Bush says it is for the Iraqi people to decide the precise form of a new government. But it will require some US incentives, if not pressure - as was done in Bosnia and Afghanistan - to create the process for that to happen.
A first step will be to find Iraqis who can be leaders under a US military governor that the Bush administration has apparently decided to install. Given the fractiousness of the Iraqi opposition outside the country, it's not clear there's a single figure Iraqis can rally around in the way Afghans accepted the evenhanded Hamid Karzai as president after holding a traditional tribal council.
Iraqis then must decide how to organize their country to prevent it from splitting up. Each ethnic and religious group must believe it has a stake in a united Iraq. Some have floated the idea of "cantonization," a sort of Arab Switzerland, as a model. The Swiss have proved such a federal model can work - for the Swiss. The danger would be if it ends up as a Lebanon - a unitary state where war often broke out among various religious groups.
Both the Afghanistan and Bosnia experiences show how difficult the task can be. Historic rivalries continue to hinder attempts to strengthen the central government.
In Afghanistan, the failure to deploy peacekeeping forces outside Kabul was a serious mistake. Whether the US has learned that lesson is open to question. That's what makes so intriguing the public dispute between Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz over how many US troops will be needed over the near term while the Iraqis work through the process. The general says hundreds of thousands. The deputy secretary says no more than the 100,000 or so currently planned for reconstruction efforts.
In either case, building a democratic Iraq is not a five-year program. Americans should prepare themselves for a long, hard haul. Getting rid of the Hussein regime could prove to be the easiest part.
Even if liberals can be found to run a free Iraq, they may face the same kind of internal dissent other Arab states face: Islamic movements that can challenge their power by feeding off public resentment toward Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
As Bush promised in the same speech, the US must also work harder to bring both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to a peace settlement soon.