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Success or Failure in Iraq and how to tell the difference


Why is the war in Iraq like a big embedded software project? Most software projects that fail, do so because the requirements were defined incorrectly. Different people seem to have defined the requirements for the war in Iraq differently. The "as-built system" called post-war Iraq may therefore have some very surprising and undesirable characteristics, dooming the project to failure. Without understanding the goals, we may not even be able to judge whether we are looking at success or failure. What are the US and its allies trying to do in Iraq?

Analyses of America's problems in Iraq may offer very skewed solutions because they have not taken into account what problem they are trying to solve. An analysis given by two professors in the New York Times offers as possible acceptable "solutions" the prospect of a divided Iraq, or Iraq under the rule of a strong man like Saddam. On consideration, these outcomes look much more like failure rather than success.

What results might qualify the prodigious effort in Iraq as a success? There are several dimensions to success: Foreign policy, domestic political organization, relations between ethnic groups, economy etc. These different dimensions may or may not be related, though people who are selling a particular solution such as strongman rule or democracy often insist that they are related.

For the United States and its allies, the most important criteria are related to foreign policy. They must have an Iraq that is not a threat to its neighbors, does not export Ba'thist revolution or terrorism and Islamist ideology and is not engaged in developing weapons of mass destruction. Anything less is certainly failure. As "nice to have" requirements, we may add that it would be nice if the "as built" Iraq is an active ally in fighting terror and is a help rather than a hindrance in bringing about peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The government should be stable of course, because otherwise there is no guarantee that these policies will persist. Stability also has several dimensions. Clearly, a society beleaguered by a terrorist insurgency with attacks every day is not stable, and a society that changes governments every few months is not stable either. Neither would have good implications for Iraq. An insurgency is also bound to spread to neighboring countries.

A successful solution can be expressed in different types of Iraqi states that might exist five or ten years hence. We do not have a crystal ball. We must also take into account that the Middle East has been famous for evolving novel and not necessarily positive forms of government not quite equivalent to those seen elsewhere. These include Iran under the Shah and the Islamic Republic, Nasser's Egypt and Saddam's Iraq, as well as more pleasant surprises such as Turkey. Nevertheless, we can envision a few possible outcomes, graded in approximate order of desirability:


Pie in the Sky Iraq - In the best case, Iraq would be a multiparty democracy with freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and really honest elections and all that these imply. By some magic, perfect democracy would also ensure that Iraq supports American policies in the Middle East. Bush administration officials seem to be aiming for this goal. However, it is not likely to happen. If it does happen, it might not be a great success from the point of view of American foreign policy. What are the real chances that in a "real democracy, the majority of Iraqis will support, for example, policies such as combating Islamism actively or a relatively benign attitude to Israel? Will they be happy about American domination of the Iraqi petroleum industry?

Relative democracy - Iraq would be a multiparty democracy with freedom of the press and freedom of religion, but the army would make sure that candidates and parties that it objects to cannot come to power. In the best case, this would be somewhat like Turkey, and in the worst case, it might be something like Algeria. A key criterion for democracy watchers would be whether the government can be really be changed by elections, or whether the ruler is only changed when he dies, to be replaced by his son or an "heir apparent." Such a state would pursue a relatively independent but responsible foreign policy. It would not be pro-Israel for example, but it would not export terror, and would have a vested interest in fighting Islamism. A variant of the relative democracy might be a constitutional monarchy like Jordan, but with more limited powers for the monarchy.

Probable Failure, which might be spun as "success"

One-party, one-man rule, pro American - Iraq would be ruled by a power elite, somewhat like Nasser's Egypt or the Iran of the Shah. Conformity would be enforced by the secret police. Given the history of Iraq, this might well be a possible outcome. It is also the outcome favored by some otherwise astute commentators, such as the professors who offered their views in the New York Times. Given the history of Iraq and Iran, it is questionable if this sort of state would last very long. Probably, as in Iran and Iraq in the past, it would be replaced eventually by one party rule that vilifies America and uses America and the West as scapegoats to unify the people. In any case, Iraq under strong man rule could not be counted as a success even if its policies are pro-American. The regime would be reviled throughout the Middle East as an example of US puppet rule. If the goal of the US is to win hearts and minds throughout the Middle East, strong-man rule is not the way to do it, though it might satisfy the heads of some client regimes who want "stability." A regime of this type would also be a juicy target for subversion. It could only survive for any length of time with a very strong and very loyal army. The example of the Iran of the Shah is not encouraging in that respect either.


Continuing chaos - If the chaos of today continues for several years, we would have to say that the coalition adventure in Iraq was a failure, both for the Americans and for the Iraqis, who would be unable to rebuild their country and live a normal existence. However, as bad as that prospect might be, it could be worse.

Islamic Republic or Baathist dictatorship - Coalition troops would leave Iraq in defeat. The new government would be both repressive and anti-American. Either it would be a Baathist regime based on a revival of the followers of Saddam Hussein, but now allied with Syria, or it would be an Islamic Republic, aligned with or controlled by the Iranian regime.

Disintegration - Iraq will disintegrate into several states. A Shi'ite state would be created in the south, a Sunni state in the center, and a Kurdish state in the north. This is one of the scenarios considered, albeit reluctantly, by professors Press and Valentino as a qualified "success" in their New York Times article. In fact, it would certainly be an unqualified disaster for America as well as for Iraqis. The chaos of today would be multiplied. There are people of all three persuasions (and more) scattered throughout Iraq. Thus, these three states would be perpetually at odds internally as well as with each other, trying to settle questions like who should rule in Mosul or Baghdad and who should get which common resources. The Sunni state would most likely become a puppet of Syria, and the Shi'a state would be a satellite of Iran. The Kurds would be a natural target of both the Turks and Iranians. Both countries have large Kurdish minorities and are not interested in Kurdish independence. None of these fragments of Iraq would have the economic viability and geographic resources of the whole. Therefore, they would be poor and at least two out of three of these states would most likely be landlocked. It is hard to see how such a scenario could be good for America and its allies or for the Iraqi people.

The stakes are high. The Iraq war has been compared to the Vietnam war, but the comparison is not accurate. Failure in Iraq will probably exact a much heavier price than failure in Vietnam or Somalia. It will mean not only the total loss of one country to an enemy, but loss of respect for the US in the entire Middle East. It may entail the fall or disaffection of governments in several allied or sympathetic states, including possibly those which are key suppliers of oil such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman. It would be a signal triumph for Islamists and Ba'athist radicals in the Middle East.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 5 comments

Iraq is a Pandora's box. Open at your own risk.

Their history has been bloody for the longest time; what dynamics or events will cause that to change?

Let us also remember the 'oil', at this point the allies will remain ad infinitum in Iraq in one form or another until an alternate source of fuel is developed, by when?

The allies, foregoing their intentions being good or bad, broke it (Iraq), and now they own it.

Posted by Israel Bonan @ 12/01/2004 06:49 PM CST

first i would like to thank those who have contributed to the opening of my eyes, thru this page. i am truly grateful. my fiance is currently in the war, or shall i say "as far as i know". i am so worried for him every minute of every day as i know most other families of soldiers are. i have been searching and researching all that i can to keep myself informed and i thank you for expanding my intelligence. i am neither in favor or against the war in iraq; i just want my beloved to come home. thankyou for sharing your views.

Posted by Wife of a Soldier @ 12/04/2004 06:57 AM CST

i would say that all out nuclear war is the only solution for world peace as everyone will be the same and have nothing,no holy sites to worship ,no identity,no wealth just themselves and each other then they might realise"what the f*** where we fighting over "land which we can not take with us,wealth which we can not take with us , then perhaps we might wake up and realise that life is just to short and to precious to be wasting on war and power.

Posted by mark @ 12/07/2004 12:38 AM CST

Please, especially you dear Lady promised to one of our finest, let's not forget the goal of a free, truly democratic Iraq. An Iraq that is surely free to have its own collective view of Israel, and an Iraq that runs its own oil industry for the good of its own people which sells oil to the USA as well as the rest of the world at a mutually equitable price.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if the ethnicities of Iraq saw this situation for what is really is- a chance for self determination. There is already evidence that they do. First of all they see our military dieing bravely for their cause, and Iraqi police and military are now resisting the insurgents and I'm afraid to say dieing in even greater numbers for their resolve. Second many of their citizens are turning in insurgents at great peril. Third 15 of 18 provinces are relatively peaceful with the Baathist triangle being the real hotbed of insurgent activity. Finally, surely this is a battly between good and evil. Let the bottom line not be euphamized, the coalition forces are embroiled against much more than just dissident Iraqis, but are instead fighting all the forces that Osama bin Laden and his ilk can muster, for the Islamists know that far worse than being killed is to be scoffed at by a free and democratic Iraq.

Posted by M of USA @ 12/07/2004 08:35 AM CST

Let me first say that I am thankful for our brave soldiers who are risking their lives everyday. My husband is in Baghdad and it is no treat for him. I feel that this was wrong for us to go out there. If they are willing to take their own lives then let it be. Our kids, husbands and wives are dying out there for what looks like a lost cause. I believe that we should get out of there soon before everyone and everything is destroyed. Innocent lives are being taken and this mess should be brought to an end immediately.

Chavon Miller

Posted by chavon Miller @ 12/23/2004 02:46 AM CST

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