Journal Of International Institute

The Journal of the International Institute ( University of Michigan)

Winter 2003, vol. 10, no. 2, p. 3

The Risks of Peace and The Costs of War

Juan Cole

Most discussion of the looming war against Iraq by the United States quite naturally focuses, in this country, on the pros and cons of such an action for America. I would like instead to talk about regional perceptions of the issue in the Middle East itself, and about likely costs of war and risks of peace there.

Risks of Peace

Let me begin with the risks of peace, reversing our title. The Gulf War of 1990-91 was a status quo war. It was conceived by the international community and even by the United States as a way of turning the dock back to July 1990, before Iraq invaded Kuwait. The problem was that the status quo ante was highly unsatisfactory. The Persian Gulf is the site of two-thirds of the proven petroleum reserves in the world. Yet the countries along its littoral have no means of providing security to themselves. They tend to be small if not tiny and militarily weak. The two exceptions here are Iran and Iraq.

The British created this situation of small states in the Gulf, to provide for the security of their shipping and communications to India in the colonial period. Yet they withdrew from the Gulf in 1969, and left behind no obvious successor. Nixon and Kissinger attempted to promote the Shah of Iran as the new guarantor of Gulf security in the 1970s, but that went sour in 1978-79 with the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Iraq made a bid to become the premier Gulf military power with its attack on Iran and the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, in which it was broadly speaking backed by the United States (which, however, played both sides against one another). Iraq did so badly in the Iran-Iraq war, however, that it left itself without credibility as security provider in the region. It also was left deeply in debt. The attack on Kuwait was aimed at regaining the sort of petroleum wealth that would allow Iraq to launch itself as a great power in the region. But it was unacceptable to the world community and Iraq was pushed back and made a pariah.

The post-war arrangements were a tragic failure. Bush’s call for an uprising of Shi’ites and Kurds against Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party succeeded only too well. Alarmed, and perhaps under Saudi pressure, the US appears to have made a deliberate decision to allow the Iraqis to put these uprisings down with helicopter gun ships, which could have been interdicted under the terms of the armistice. Tens of thousands of Shi`ites were killed then and subsequently. Although the United States ultimately stepped in to protect the Kurds, it did not do the same for the Shi’ites in the south, who continued to be victimized.

The sanctions regime initially allowed too little food and medicine into Iraq, harming civilians and children; and the Baath regime’s insistence on skimming off profits from smuggled petroleum or later from the oil for food program of the UN only worsened their plight. This situation created vast discontents with the United States in the Arab world and in the Muslim world more generally. The mastermind of the bombing of a Western dance club in Indonesia that killed over 180 persons gave the US actions against Iraq as one of his motives. Although Iraq has arguably been contained, its containment has come at a very high price.

Domestically, the civilian population and children have suffered enormously from lack of medicine and from poverty produced by the sanctions and by the distribution of wealth toward party members. Politically active Shi’ites have been killed in the thousands and dissident villages in the marshes have seen their swamps drained. Internationally, the United States faces constant opprobrium for keeping the sanctions in place. Now we are told that after all this suffering, its prime aim, of preventing Iraq from continuing to militarize and to develop weapons of mass destruction, may well have faded anyway. The risks of peace therefore include: continued lack of good security in the Persian Gulf region, imperiling both the people who live there and the assured access to energy supplies on the part of the US and its allies; the continued brutalization of the Iraqi population by a totalitarian regime that has conducted virtual genocide against Kurds and Shi’ites; the continued demonization. of the United States in the region and in the Muslim world for the negative effects of the sanctions regime; the possibility that Iraq will develop enough in the way of weapons of mass destruction to break out of containment and to attempt to gain popularity by attacking yet another of its neighbors, perhaps Turkey or Israel. The aggressive, militaristic nature of the Saddam Hussein regime makes such a scenario, however unlikely, at least plausible.

I do not personally believe that a risk of peace includes an Iraq weapons of mass destruction attack on the United States itself, nor is there any solid evidence in open sources of a firm link between Iraq and anti-US terrorism.

Costs of War

The regional costs of a US war on Iraq are potentially great: The war will inevitably be seen in the Arab world as a neo-colonial war. It will be depicted as a repeat of the French occupation of Algeria or the British in Egypt-or indeed, the British in Iraq. These were highly unpopular and humiliating episodes. The US, even if it has a quick military victory, is unlikely to win the war diplomatically in the Arab world. Pan-Arabism has been more aspiration than reality in the past century, but this US war against Iraq might well promote the formation of a stronger regional political bloc.

As a result of resentment against this neocolonialism, the likelihood is that al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations will find it easier to recruit angry young men in the region and in Europe for terrorist operations against the US and its interests. The final defeat of the Baath Party will be seen as a defeat of its ideals, which include secularism, improved rights for women and high modernism. Arabs in despair of these projects are likely to turn to radical Islam as an alternative outlet for their frustrations. The Sunnis of Iraq could well turn to groups like al-Qaida, having lost the ideals of the Baath. Iraqi Shi’ites might become easier to recruit into Khomeinism of the Iranian sort, and become a bulwark for the shaky regime in Shi’ite Iran.

A post-war Iraq may well be riven with factionalism that impedes the development of a well-ensconced new government. We have seen this sort of outcome in Afghanistan. Commentators often note the possibility for Sunni-Shi’ite divisions or Arab Kurdish ones. These are very real. If Islamic law is the basis of the new state, that begs the question of whether its Sunni or Shi’ite version will be implemented. It is seldom realized that the Kurds themselves fought a mini-civil war in 1994-1997 between two major political and tribal fac- tions. Likewise the Shi’ites are deeply divided, by tribe, region and political ideology. Many lower-level Baath Party members are Shi’ite, but tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi’ites are in exile in Iran and want to come back under the banner of ayatollahs.

Internal factionalism is unlikely to reach the level of Yugoslavia after the fall of the communists, since US air power can be invoked to stop mass slaughter. But there could be a good deal of trouble in the country, and as the case of Afghanistan shows, the US cannot always stop faction fighting.

A new government in Iraq raises questions about its relationship to its neighbors. Turkey is strongly opposed to Iraqi Kurdish control of the oil fields of Kirkuk. The Kurds have all but announced that they will try to grab them when fighting breaks out. The Turks have said that in case this happens, Turkey may well invade Iraq to stop it. It is unacceptable to the Turkish government to have well-funded autonomous Kurds on their borders. They fear Kurdish nationalism, which might well tear eastern Turkey away from Ankara. Shi’ite Iran will certainly attempt to increase its influence among Iraqi Shi’ites once the Baath is defeated.

Shi’ite political parties may well turn to Tehran for funding. A US-occupied country where the Iranian ayatollahs have substantial influence is a disaster waiting to happen. An Iraq war may have a negative impact on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. A democratic Iraq, if any such thing emerges from an American occupation, will not necessarily be less opposed to Israeli policies toward Palestinians and the creeping annexation of the West Bank. Iraqi individuals and political organizations, freed from Baath monopoly, might well support the Palestinians, including Palestinian guerrillas, at a higher level than does Saddam.

The chaos of war could allow for an outbreak of major violence between Palestinians and Israelis. The Baath may target Israel with scuds tipped with poison gas, e.g. Israeli retaliation will make the war look even more like a joint colonialist and Zionist effort among Arabs, and further inflame passions against the US in the region.

Those who support an Iraq war argue that the potential negative fall-out consists of improbable scenarios that are no more likely to come to fruition than did the dire forecasts about overthrown Arab regimes in 1990. They argue that if we can get a genuinely democratic, modern Iraq out of the war, its beneficial effects will radiate throughout the region. They may be right. But it is worth remembering that we were promised a democratic Kuwait in 1991 and a democratic, stable Afghanistan in 2002, and have yet to see either.