April 26, 2003 | San Diego Union-Tribune

Winning the Peace

Start by recognizing what's already been achieved: With the toppling of Saddam Hussein the United States has removed a ticking time bomb, neutralized a sworn enemy who was preparing to take his revenge on Americans — at a time of his choosing. That's good for us.

America also has liberated the people of Iraq, rescued them from chronic torture and oppression, given them the chance to remake their nation and their lives. That's good for them.

If that's all America's intervention in Iraq accomplishes, that's a lot. But there is at least a chance for much more, a chance to revitalize both Iraq and indeed the Middle East, and profoundly change the course of world history. That would be good for everyone — but it won't be easy.

In the aftermath of World War II, America took several years to transform the wreckage of Nazi Germany and Militarist Japan into what have proved to be enduringly free and democratic societies. Why can't that model be replicated in Iraq? Because World War II was a total war – we fought not just Hitler and Tojo but the Germans and the Japanese; we defeated not only regimes but nations, and we forced those nations to surrender unconditionally.

By contrast, U.S. forces went into Iraq only to liberate the Iraqis from a tyrant who was oppressing them and menacing us. Never before in history has an invading army taken such pains to avoid killing civilians and even damaging infrastructure. That was both humane and wise but it has put limits on the exercise of American power in post-Saddam Iraq.

So the task now is to assist, to help Iraqis get accustomed to both the satisfactions and the responsibilities of freedom, and to help them build democratic institutions. Democracy does not mean one-man-one-vote-one-time. Democracy means establishing the rule of law, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a free press, religious freedom, human rights and minority protections. Democracy means that after an election, both winners and losers understand that they will live to fight another day.

Within the Iraqi exile community, at least, these are not alien concepts. And in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, which have been de facto independent for more than a decade (thanks to the Anglo-American “no-fly zone” that kept out Saddam's thugs), such ideas have been embraced: Kurdistan is already substantially free, pluralistic and democratic.

The best-case scenario would be for the other regions of Iraq  – the Shiite south and the Sunni center – to emulate the Kurdish model, with each region enjoying autonomy, and with representatives from each region coming together to form a federal government in Baghdad that would be united, but strictly limited in its powers.

In this scenario, Iraq would become the first democratic nation in the Arab world – but not the last. Iraq would demonstrate that Arab and Muslim counties are welcome to join the Free World, and it would mean that Iraq would serve as a model, inspiring significant reforms in such neighboring states as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. A free and democratic Iraq also could become a key American strategic ally along with such fellow democracies as Turkey and Israel.

Of course, there is no guarantee that any of this will come to pass. We have to be candid about the possibility that Iraqis – having been given this opportunity – may fail to take advantage of it.

Some Iraqis – Shiites and Sunnis alike — no doubt do harbor a deep-seated hatred of America and all it represents, a hatred that has not been mitigated by the fact that the United States has sacrificed lives and treasure to free them. Such people can be found, to some extent, everywhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Such people never showed any appreciation for America's defense of Muslim communities in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia and elsewhere.  (Such ingratitude is not unique to the Arab and Muslim worlds – it can be found even in some neighborhoods of Paris.)

In recent days, we've seen protests in southern Iraq in favor of creating a Shiite Islamic theocracy, the kind of government established by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1979 – and which has been an utter failure. But you can't gauge a nation's views by its demonstrators. Recently, there have been hundreds of thousands of angry Americans marching in the streets of San Francisco, New York and Washington, protesting President Bush's decision to remove Saddam, at a time when the polls showed support for US military action topping 70 percent.

And we can only speculate to what extent Iran's ruling mullahs are manipulating events within the Shiite communities of Iraq. There have been credible reports of Iranian-trained agents crossing into southern Iraq to both organize and agitate.

Meddling by the rulers of Syria and Saudi Arabia also should be expected – and needs to be combated. Neither Syrian dictator Bashar Assad nor the Saudi royal family is eager to see a free, democratic and prosperous Iraq established next door. Such a development, they foresee, would inevitably cause unrest among un-free Syrians and Saudis in those undemocratic states.

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad already has hinted that he intends to try to turn Iraq into another Lebanon – recalling how the Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah bombed US embassies and marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, causing America to hastily withdraw, leaving Lebanon – once the a free, vibrant and decent society  – to become a Syrian puppet.

To defeat such plots and to win the peace in Iraq will require an American commitment that is long, strong, creative and resourceful. We've undertaken such commitments in the past: More than a half century after World War II and the Korean War, American troops are still in both Germany and South Korea. American troops remain in the Balkans a decade after Clinton sent them there.

It may be time, however, to consider pulling forces out Western Europe, as well as removing the US military presence in Saudi Arabia – where their mission was to protect the Saudis from Saddam's regime. No regime, no need for protection. In general, America troops should only be based in democratic nations because only in democratic nations is it clear that the troops are there with the consent of the people.

According to Ahmed Chalabi, of the Iraqi National Congress (formerly an anti-Saddam exiled group) American-led forces will need to be in Iraq at least until the Iraqis complete their first free election which is probably no less than two years away. After that, if all goes well and a democratic Iraq emerges, it's entirely possible that some sort of mutually beneficial US-Iraqi defense partnership will be forged. Such an arrangement would not be imposed on Iraq – it would come about only if Iraq's elected leaders determined that it was in Iraq's interest.

It will also be in America's interest because the war on terrorism is far from over and Iraq sits in the middle of a region that breeds terrorism. The war on terrorism was always what foreign policy wonks call “the deep reason” for the conflict in Iraq. What that means is simply this: In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush recognized that the primary threat to American security had become a witch's brew of rogue dictators, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.

Previously — and under both Republican and Democratic administrations — terrorism had been misperceived as a criminal justice problem (e.g. a prolonged investigation of the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 resulted in the conviction of one low-level Libyan operative), a minor irritant (President Clinton did not even visit the World Trade Towers after the 1993 attack), or a scrap that one should walk away from (e.g. Beirut in 1983 and Mogadishu in 1993).

Having recognized this reality, President Bush also grasped that he could not turn a blind eye to anti-American, megalomaniacal, terrorist masters developing weapons of mass destruction – about as accurate a description of Saddam Hussein as one can devise.

The other misperception about the war against terrorism has been to see it as only a fight against terrorist groups. But to function most effectively, terrorists need state sponsors – dictators who supply and channel funds, provide territory on which terrorists can train recruits, and facilitate terrorists' access to weapons, including weapons of mass destruction.

Today, terrorists are no longer at home in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sooner, rather than later, we must be able to say the same of Syria and Lebanon. The regimes that control these countries need to change their behavior – or they need to be changed through whatever means we have at our disposal: diplomatic, economic, clandestine and military.

At the heart of what is called the Bush Doctrine are three precepts, all of which applied in Iraq and will apply throughout the world: Never again will the United States distinguish between terrorists and their sponsors. Never again will the United States fail to act against an opponent who we know intends to kill large numbers of Americans. In the 21st Century, America must become a nation that defends its friends and defeats its enemies. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was one such enemy. If we truly win the peace, Iraq in the future will become one such friend.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism established immediately after 9/11.