To an important core of American policymakers, creating a democratic Iraq would be a kind of nation-building Holy Grail. President Bush leads the crusade, arguing that a liberated Iraq would transform the Middle East by "bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions."
Now that military confrontation is underway, that Holy Grail is being tested by troubling questions. US-led military forces seem to be well on their way to toppling Saddam Hussein's regime. But can they promote democracy in a Muslim country numbed by decades of tyranny?
Former Iraqi Gen. Fawzi Al-Shammari says yes. In the 1980s, Gen. Shammari commanded nine divisions of Iraqi troops against Iran. Today, he's leading a much-smaller movement with a much-bigger aim: transforming Iraqi tyranny to democracy.
For Shammari, regime change is a must. "Saddam is just a criminal worse than Hitler and Stalin," he says. The Soviet-trained strategist defected to the US after the Persian Gulf War, and he now manages a Washington-area restaurant. He also heads the Iraqi Officers Movement, a coalition of Iraqi exiles dedicated to new leadership in Iraq.
Efforts to initiate the "start game" of democracy are on hold until the "end game" of war unfolds. That end game, in turn, largely depends on Mr. Hussein's strategy.
Hussein's decision-making, observers say, reflects a combustible mix of tenacity and risky judgment. "His estimate of the situation has on several occasions proved to be badly flawed," says St. Louis University political science professor J.R. Leguey-Filleux. "He is a gambler and he is vindictive."
Both men speculate that Hussein will lash out on the cusp of defeat.
Shammari is confident Hussein will use chemical weapons. "[He] can't use them in the beginning, but he will use them at last resort," he says. The most likely target for Saddam Hussein, he says, is Israel.
"He is likely to strike Israel again in case of war," Filleux says, "and this time, Israel will undoubtedly retaliate, which will complicate US rapport with those Arab states which may be helping in the campaign."
If Hussein's jabs at Israel incite a regional holy war, then the prospect for peace, let alone democracy, fades. But if US-led forces can force Hussein's ouster without sparking a Mideast conflagration, then democratic proponents may have a small window of opportunity.
First and foremost, however, they must contend with Hussein's most-loyal followers: the Republican Guard. For its superior loyalty and fierceness, Hussein's private army may present a more-formidable challenge than the regular public army. And as guardians for the entrenched Baathist party, they present a major obstacle to democratic progress.
The Baathist-Republican Guard grip on power bears heavily on a post-Hussein Iraq. "Many in the upper echelons have their careers tied to the current regime," Filleux says. With Hussein gone, political infighting and revenge killings could be rampant.
Baathist monopoly could also lead to an awkward political future. "The Baath is so controlled by Saddam that his demise would have a drastic effect on the nature of the party monopoly," Filleux says. "Some [Baathists] " probably many " will have to stay in office to keep the state functioning."
US planners, then, must balance their desire to de-Saddamize Iraq with the realistic need to co-opt the expertise of his entrenched supporters into a friendly regime.
The nearly quarter million US soldiers assembling in the Gulf have been being trained for worst-case scenarios, from Scud attacks to bioterror. But are they ready to keep law and order " and possibly a fragile democratic structure " after the war?
American forces don't have the best regime-change record. According to published commentary from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace researchers Minxin Pei and Sara Kasper, only five of the 18 regime changes forced by the US in the 20th century resulted in democracy. In wars fought unilaterally, only Panama stands a success.
If the Iraq transformation fails, it won't be because of hasty thinking. Over a decade ago, top-level memos " authored by some of the same people now advising President Bush " outlined strategies to bring democracy into the country. By 1998, Congress had passed the Iraq Liberation Act which urged "the emergence of a democratic government" to replace Hussein.
Last October, the White House reported it was studying US rebuilding efforts in Japan and Germany after WWII. The State Department and Pentagon have been discussing " some would say arguing " over the shape of post-war Iraq for months. And Gen. Tommy Franks is already slated to rule Baghdad.
These steps haven't assured critics.
"I find most of the [political] conversation about building democracy in Iraq to be abstract and rhetorical," Graham Allison says. The Harvard political science professor and former Clinton administration defense analyst suggests much more work is needed. "I think our understanding of what is and would be required to 'build democracy' in Iraq is limited and mostly we don't even appreciate how limited."
US officials recently told a Senate panel that "enormous uncertainties" made it impossible to outline how long US troops would occupy Iraq and how much it would cost. US officials conceded they didn't know how the US would manage the Iraqi oil industry, who would cover oil installation reconstruction costs, or how they would install a democratic government. And recent internal dissent within the Bush administration over required troop estimates means the speculation is becoming more politically charged.
"The American people have no notion of what we are about to undertake," noted Democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware.
To Allison, the most likely scenario for post-Hussein government includes martial law. "I can imagine [a future government] in which there's another general who rules a more-pluralized and somewhat more-decentralized and somewhat more-friendly Iraq which comes to be called victory and part of a long-term process."
Bush has emphasized the need for self-determination. "The United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq's new government," Bush said. "That choice belongs to the Iraqi people. Yet we will ensure that one brutal dictator is not replaced by another."
Proponents of democracy have also alluded to the success of American governance in Germany and Japan after WWII. Will the US implement that model? Not likely, Allison says.
Allison's doubt reflects broader concern over the receptivity of the Iraqi people themselves to American designs for democracy.
Some observers talk of Iraqis dancing in the streets if Hussein is ousted; others expect anti-American backlash, ethnic infighting, and civil chaos.
"The truth is, we don't have a very good idea [how the Iraqis will react]," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Iraqis are sick and tired of 20 years of war, they want it over with. They would be prepared to tolerate [American leadership]."
The US, he says, must quickly address humanitarian needs and leave as "quickly as we can" to instill positive sentiment among Iraqis.
A paradoxical danger of removing Hussein is that it could upset the country's tenuous ethnic composition. Iraq's arbitrary borders are partly to blame for the country's fractured nature and strong-man history. After WWI, Great Britain ruled Iraq imposing borders that brought three rival groups together: Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and the ethnic Kurds.
Ethnic Kurds, who live in an area spanning northern Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, demonstrated their desire for autonomy after the first Gulf War. The US had pledged support for their uprising. When it never materialized, Hussein squashed the Kurd rebellion. Kurdish aims for independence " and the consternation that causes Iran and Turkey " may mean the US must focus on border stability before democracy.
Still, many Iraqis themselves want democracy. "All Iraqis are looking for and dreaming of achieving democracy," says Shammari.
Wake Forest religion professor Professor Kimball says that Islam and democracy can co-exist. Many Muslim countries are not democratic, he says, because they are relatively new post-colonial states, not because Islam forbids democratic governance.
Bush goes a step further. In a major address recently, Bush proclaimed that all human cultures aspire to democratic ideals, essentially laying the cornerstone for his "domino democracy" theory. "Success in Iraq," Bush said, "could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state."
Ironically, the State Department published a classified report " "Iraq, the Middle East and Change: No Dominoes." " the same day Bush set forth that vision.
The department analysis claims that daunting economic and social problems are likely to undermine basic stability in the region for years. And it suggests that strong anti-American sentiment could transform any elections that take place into a strong mandate for an Islamic government hostile to US interests.
US efforts to establish democracy could backfire, warns Filleux, if the rebuilding process in Iraq is miscast.
"The United States will fail if it is seen trying to implant new values," he says. "The fundamentalists in the Islamic world are already accusing the US of doing just that."
Another former Iraqi general, Najeeb al-Salhi, however, says the current opportunity should not be missed.
"I think US has the opportunity to change the region to peaceful one," he says. "This is a golden opportunity for US to promote peace, democracy, and regain the trust of Iraqis. Promoting Democracy in Iraq is a right step."
Shammari remains guarded. Democracy, he concedes, will take time to develop.
"Our people are different than the people in the US," he says. "Because in the US, they grew up with democracy. We don't have that."
And he stresses the importance of genuine leadership. "Democracy starts from the leadership and we have to be very careful when we elect [leaders] or choose them."