THE NEW YORKER: WAR WITHOUT END? By David Remnick  April, 14, 2003

Saddam Hussein, who came to power in 1979 declaring his intention to combine the glory of Nebuchadnezzar with the methods of Josef Stalin, no longer rules Iraq, and not to feel relief at the prospect of a world without him is to be possessed of a grudging heart. In a region well stocked with tyrants and autocrats, Saddam was singular in his ambitions, though not in the way proposed by his cult of personality. His record of murder, torture, aggression, intimidation, and subjugation is inscribed in the documentary reports of Human Rights Watch and in the souls of the traumatized ex-subjects who have survived to hammer at his fallen monuments. And yet it would also require a constricted conscience to declare the Anglo-American invasion finished business while so much of the world remains alarmed or enraged at the level of its presumption—and while so many dead go uncounted. It is hard to put a name to what has happened (to what is happening still), not least because the Bush Administration’s intentions, both within Iraq and beyond it, are still a question of deepest concern.

Historical analogy has been a crude instrument in the service of moral and political certainty. For a while, we did without history. We were at the end of history, our circumstance novel beyond compare. Modernity was triumphant, and it would bring democracy everywhere and a Dow without limit. But an attack on an iconic center of modernity on September 11, 2001, and then a war in an ancient place, along the Tigris and the Euphrates, brought history back in a tidal rush. And so this has been a period of incessant historical reference. To the most unequivocal hawks, Saddam was Hitler; 2003 was 1938; Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac, and Colin Powell were the heirs of Neville Chamberlain. As the doves saw things, Bush and his Cabinet members were manipulating the facts the way Lyndon Johnson did at the Gulf of Tonkin, and were determined to invade and raze a foreign country in the pursuit of a new kind of domino theory. The invasion of Iraq, to its fiercest opponents, was sure to be the Athenians’ vainglorious assault on Sicily as described in “The Peloponnesian War,” the horror of 1914 depicted in “The Guns of August,” the naïve folly of “The Quiet American.” Where some saw the liberation of Paris, others envisioned a Mesopotamian Stalingrad.

Even now, as Baghdad falls after three weeks of startling military advance, one can go on choosing among images and reference points. The “jubilant” crowd described in detail late last week by the Associated Press encourages one kind of analogy, the photograph of a hideously wounded child in Time quite another. Americans will not write this history on their terms alone, and the way in which it is written, absorbed, and understood by us, by the Europeans, by the Islamic world, and, most of all, by the Iraqis themselves will depend largely upon what comes next. What are the Administration’s true ambitions?

There is little doubt that some of the most hawkish ideologues in and around the Bush Administration entertain dreams of a kind of endless war. James Woolsey, a former director of Central Intelligence who has been proposed as a Minister of Information in Iraq by Donald Rumsfeld, forecasts a Fourth World War (the third, of course, having been the Cold War), which will last “considerably longer” than either of the first two. One senior British official dryly told Newsweek before the invasion, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” And then, presumably, to Damascus, Beirut, Khartoum, Sanaa, Pyongyang. Richard Perle, one of the most influential advisers to the Pentagon, told an audience not long ago that, with a successful invasion of Iraq, “we could deliver a short message, a two-word message: ‘You’re next.’”

The Middle East is rife with regimes that support, each in its own way, dangerous and destabilizing terrorist groups, from Hezbollah to Al Qaeda. A stable, independent, and free Iraq—which will take years to achieve—might well exert a powerful influence. But if the invasion of Iraq emboldens American ideologues to the point of triumphalism and hubris, to the point where every world-transforming fantasy is to be proposed and indulged without brake, then those whose historical analogy of choice was 1914 could prove to be possessed not only of a tragic view of life but also of a terrifyingly convincing argument.

The moral and political critics of a war in Iraq were surely correct to say that the worst consequence, beyond the thousands of lives lost, was the erosion of our relations with many of our allies and their publics. There is hypocrisy everywhere (Russia’s lectures on the exercise of American power seem hollow after the devastation of Chechnya), but it is long past the moment for debate, even with the French. The future is what counts. Some liberal internationalists, having seen the use of force come to a decent end in Kosovo and (finally) in Bosnia, supported this war. But among them, as among the opponents of the war, there has been a profound sense of anxiety that the Administration was recklessly indifferent to the imperfect but irreplaceable structures of international order built over sixty years.

And now, in the language of Beltway strutting, are we really to “do” Syria or Iran? Recently, in the pages of Policy Review—a conservative journal that is enjoying the vogue and influence in right-leaning circles that Commentary did in the nineteen-eighties—Ken Jowitt, a political-science professor who divides his time between the Hoover Institution and the University of California at Berkeley, challenges a “magic bullet” scenario in which the toppling of Saddam will act as a regional democratic stimulus so powerful that the Iranians will suddenly rise up against the ayatollahs, the autocrats of Egypt and Jordan will liberalize, and the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, “being an ophthalmologist, will see the regional writing on the wall.” Jowitt is rightly dubious of an ongoing evangelical adventure. He writes, “The magic bullet scenario effectively transforms and elevates a local, dangerous-but-mundane effort to remove a pathological killer, Saddam Hussein, into a successful democratic crusade that transforms the ‘last’ anti-modern, anti-democratic capitalist region of the world: the Muslim Middle East. One might at least consider the fate of earlier Western crusades.”

In a report from Damascus in the Times last week, Neil MacFarquhar quoted Sayyid Abu Murtadah al-Yasiri, an Iraqi exile and cleric who fled Najaf twenty-three years ago, after his own religious mentor, the grand ayatollah, was murdered by Saddam’s men. Al-Yasiri said, “We are happy to be rid of injustice, but we fear the Americans’ intentions.” The lifting of that fear, and of similar fears throughout the Middle East, must be a priority.

America’s list of responsibilities in Iraq hardly ends with military conquest, and it leaves little room for adventuring. Tens of thousands of soldiers will need to remain in Iraq long enough to prevent civil unrest or even civil war, while being vigilant against snipers, terror attacks, and guerrilla reprisals like last Thursday’s suicide bombing in Baghdad. Food, water, electricity, medicine, and other resources will need to be rapidly distributed. The production and flow of oil, the source of Iraqi wealth, will need to be maintained in a way that does not imply an occupier’s exploitation. And then there is the question of helping to build a free state on the rubble of tyranny. To stage-manage a hasty election of surrogates and then beat a fast retreat would confirm suspicions of American inconstancy no less than the rapid elevation of Halliburton, Bechtel, and Exxon Mobil as the titans of Iraqi industry.

Amid the celebrations and the darker scenes of death and looting, the indelible image and photo op of the fall of Baghdad was the toppling of Saddam’s statue on Firdos Square, an image that could not fail to echo the destruction of similarly forbidding icons in Moscow more than a decade ago. And yet that resonance should be deep and instructive: the initial fireworks blast of promise in Moscow soon settled down into years of painful transformation. In some of the states of the former Soviet Union, autocrats still reign. “When smashing monuments,” the Polish Holocaust survivor and satirist Stanislaw Lec once remarked, “save the pedestals—they always come in handy.” If the world is to escape such dark prophecies, the Bush Administration will have to demonstrate the political skills to master a project it famously disdained: nation-building. To help create a liberal state following a military invasion is an enormously radical, and delicate, project. Here the prize is not power but something more elusive—legitimacy. There are many ways for the United States to press the case for peace and political reform in the Middle East. A doctrine of permanent revolution, however, brings to mind no analogies in history to comfort us. The phrase is Trotsky’s, and the precedent is catastrophe.