Will Saddam’s removal change things?

While liberating the people of Iraq would have been enough justification for the removal of Saddam Hussein, the US had additional purposes in leading the international effort that ended his rule. Of course one can know only actions, not purposes; even individuals often have complex motivations, and a nation and an international coalition inevitably have mixed motives. The following is my interpretation of President Bush’s purposes– without having had an opportunity to discuss the matter with him.

The president does not even consider the use of force to achieve ordinary US policy goals, such as purchasing oil at moderate prices or encouraging international trade. His action against Saddam was part of the pursuit of two goals required to protect the lives of Americans; inducing governments to stop harboring terrorists and terrorist organizations, and preventing the spread of nuclear and biological weapons.

The president’s belief in freedom also influences his purposes. Before September 11, 2001 he thought that countries would need to move toward freedom each at their own pace, and that encouraging that movement was not an immediately decisive part of American policy. He has become increasingly convinced that his essential immediate goals concerning terrorism and WMD require supporting movement toward greater freedom in the Middle East.

There was no chance that the president’s goals could be achieved until after Saddam was removed, because Saddam was a demonstration that the US and its goals could be safely defied. There are a number of governments whose motivation to harbor terrorists and/or to acquire nuclear or biological weapons is so strong that they will only cease pursuing those goals if they believe that doing so endangers their ability to remain in power. The US could not begin to negotiate with such countries with any hope of success until they understood that the US had sufficient power, will, and international support to make it dangerous for them to continue to support terrorism or to acquire WMD. All of these governments are so weak that they are vulnerable to political action because they lack popular support at home.

The message that President Bush wanted to communicate by leading the effort to remove Saddam was not that countries have to do anything the US tells them, or that the US seeks to dominate any part of the world, much less that the US is opposed to Islam. (After all, it was Muslims who were liberated by Saddam’s removal, as it was Muslims who were protected by NATO-led action in the Balkans.) The US used its power in Iraq for only two purposes: to prevent terrorism and to prevent the spread of nuclear and biological weapons. The only message it intended to deliver in Iraq was that no government that supports terrorism or acquires nuclear or biological weapons is safe. Those are the only purposes for which the US has been willing to use its power.

Countries like Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, that support terrorism and/or try to acquire WMD, can respond to the US-led action in Iraq in either of two ways. They can decide that prudence requires giving up terrorism and WMD, or they can try to defeat the US in Iraq so that it will be safe to continue their support for terrorism and pursuit of WMD. (Or they can lie low and try to conceal their policy.)

Libya seems to have decided to be prudent. Syria and Iran have, up to now, followed a mixed strategy. They are primarily fighting to defeat the US in Iraq in order to weaken the US, but they are also making some concessions and conciliatory gestures intended to encourage the US and the Western European powers to think that they can be dissuaded from continuing support for terrorism and pursuit of WMD. This is part of the reason that Syrian President Asad is talking about reopening talks with Israel, perhaps in the hope that if he is engaged in a “peace process” the US will refrain from political action against him. Iran is also using deception and conciliation to gain time until it acquires nuclear weapons. To that end it has recently made some apparent concessions concerning its nuclear weapons program.

All of the above has been simplified by ignoring internal disagreements: within the US, among and within the other great democracies, within the Guidance Council in Iran, and within Saudi Arabia. These internal disagreements are often of critical importance.

In the end all of these countries will have governments that reject support for terrorism and the pursuit of nuclear and biological weapons. The rate at which other countries decide to follow Libya’s example depends on what happens next. If the US is defeated in Iraq, then Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia will move slowly or not at all to change their policies. If these countries succeed in inducing the US to change its policy and not to insist on ending support for terrorism and pursuit of WMD they will not change their basic policy. Substantial terrorism in the US would increase the likelihood that the US will insist that Middle Eastern governments stop their support for terrorists.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have domestically fragile regimes that may well not continue in power for five years if the US does not help them. This is especially true if the Iraqis succeed in creating a reasonably free government, and even if the US does nothing further to encourage regime change in either country.

In conclusion, “dominos” is not the right metaphor, because nothing happens so automatically, but it is likely that the removal of Saddam is an early piece of a pattern of causes that will gradually lead to a major change in behavior in the Middle East. In some cases, such as Libya, this will happen because the regime recognizes the need to accommodate US goals concerning terrorism and WMD, and in other cases it will happen because different regimes come to power–”either because of US efforts or because of internal considerations, or through a combination of both. One result of the changes that flow in the wake of Iraq will be a movement in the direction of freedom–”a movement that is not likely to be either rapid or steady, but which will eventually result in the Middle East becoming much less different from the rest of the world than it was a year ago.