US Foreign Policy

Assessing the Long-Term Challenges

in Program

From, “How to Build a New Iraq after Saddam.”
Republished with the permission of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

As Washington debates policies for regime change in Iraq, the question of when change occurs may ultimately prove more important than how it occurs. Military strategists and planners are focusing on invasion scenarios, and pundits are weighing whether the Bush administration has already moved beyond coup plotting and opposition-led options. But the real story of what becomes of Iraq after Saddam Husayn may be determined more by how long he remains in power than by the details of his demise.

The following analysis of transition in Iraq is predicated on three assumptions:

1. The only practical definition of a “post-Saddam” regime is one in which neither Saddam nor his immediate Tikriti entourage is in power. Aside from that criterion, anything is possible: chaos, military government, Ba’ath rule, multiparty coalitions, Shi’i dominance, de facto division of the country into two or three parts, et cetera.

2. Although the immediate successor to Saddam may be a marginal, transitional figure or group, any planning for a post-Saddam Iraq should take a longer-term view of the country, its society, and its potential for stability.

3. The role of the international community will be less pivotal than expected. First, its influence may well be diffused among competing players with different agendas. Second, the durability of change will be determined by Iraqis themselves through their capacity for rebuilding not only the physical aspects of their lives, but the political and social life of the country as well.

Timing is crucial; the longer Saddam rules, the more difficult it will be to rebuild a modern, functioning society once he is gone. Many of the prominent exiles who came of age during the good years of Ba’ath rule and became the welleducated elite that built modern Iraq are still in their productive years; nevertheless, they are approaching retirement. Should regime change occur soon, this generation of professionals, still perhaps favorably disposed to the West, would be able to play an important role, if not in leadership positions then in advisory roles. If change does not occur for several years, however, most of the working-age population would likely be composed of people whose entire adult lives have been shaped by the harsh realities of Iraq’s decline: namely, the 1980s, with the economic costs of the war against Iran; the 1990s, with international sanctions and Saddam’s excesses; and the new millennium, which has seen some material relief from sanctions but continued political and social brutality.

Iraq’s Potential

Two quite different realities tend to shape an outsider’s thinking about post-Saddam Iraq. On the one hand, Iraq has tremendous potential to become a successful state. It has natural resources, a tradition of strong (too strong, perhaps) institutions, and remarkable human resources. In a sense, Saddam’s ambitions and investments have placed Iraq in an enviable position compared to other Arab states in terms of education, infrastructure, and societal achievements.1 The Iraqi elite have enjoyed higher standards of education, greater opportunities for travel and training abroad, and more governmental support in the arts and sciences than most of their Arab confreres.

On the other hand, the many deleterious changes that have occurred in Iraq over the past two decades have undoubtedly had a profound effect on the elite’s psyche and political orientation, and the erosion of socioeconomic conditions may warrant more modest forecasts about Iraq’s short- to mediumterm potential:

  • Literacy in the early 1980s was estimated at 80 percent, and primary-school enrollment was free and virtually universal. Although reliable data is scarce two decades later, education has clearly become too costly for many, and literacy rates have dropped. Some estimate that as many as a third of Iraqi children do not attend school, either because schools are not available, because of economic duress, or both.
  • Per capita income is probably less than one-quarter of its 1980 level of more than $4,000, and as many as 80 percent of Iraqis live below the poverty line, nearly double the number of a decade ago.2
  • Health standards in the 1980s were higher than the regional average, although rural poverty and disease were a chronic problem. Currently, international health experts (whose objectivity is sometimes questioned due to overreliance on Iraqi statistics) report that conditions have worsened dramatically for Iraqis. Alarming increases have been noted in infectious disease, infant mortality, and rare cancers. Among the causes of this unfortunate development are the regime’s use of chemical weapons and its mismanagement of the United Nations (UN) oil-for-food program.

Iraqi society has been brutalized and traumatized over the past half-century, and such conditions have taken a toll on Iraqi confidence in the future. Outsiders simply cannot know how the minds and political aspirations of Iraqi citizens have been shaped by the many years of Saddam’s rule. Ample anecdotal reporting shows that Iraqis universally loathe Saddam3 and would rejoice at his demise. One can assume that most of the population hopes to return to a time when Iraq was widely respected for its prosperity and feared as a powerful regional force. Presumably, Iraqis would unite around the prospect of positive change and healing that Saddam’s departure would portend.

Yet, outsiders should not be surprised if a generation of Iraqis who have lived solely under Saddam’s rule reflexively seek strong leadership once he is gone, expecting the state to tell them what to do and to set limits on their freedoms. Many in Iraq speak of their yearning for democracy once change comes, but it would be unfair to expect the citizenry to learn how to become democrats overnight. Like the citizens of the former republics of the Soviet Union, many Iraqis, acculturated as they are to a strongman model, may revert to nondemocratic behavior, particularly if crime and disorder prevail when the Tikritis fall. Many Iraqis living in exile and in liberated northern Iraq are also predisposed to a perhaps excessive degree of respect for authority figures, even while speaking of pluralism and representative government. Such an attitude could undermine the healthy questioning of authority that is the hallmark of most democratic societies.

The effects of brutalization may also manifest themselves in harsh attitudes toward the international community. Iraqis who are currently in their thirties or forties may harbor deep resentment toward the West generally and the United States in particular, even if they are willing to work with Westerners toward the liberation of their country. Owing to the regime’s propaganda and to the material conditions of their lives, many Iraqis do not appreciate the nuances of Western sanctions policies, and they may have formed political views that are based on supposed Western ill will toward their country. A post-Saddam government may therefore project deep animus toward the West, placing Iraq in a defiant and fiercely independent posture in its regional and international relations.

Internal Transition Issues

In comparison to the enormous efforts required in Afghanistan, the physical repair of Iraq will be relatively easy. Iraq is a country of engineers and builders, people who quickly restored bridges and roads after the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars. Recent visitors to Iraq report both urban and rural disrepair owing to economic constraints, but once regime change occurs, the availability of material and know-how should permit fairly straightforward reconstruction. The disbursement of existing funds for food, medicine, and other civilian purposes should bring about rapid improvement of basic economic conditions, including badly needed repairs of public works (e.g., water systems, hospitals). The potential fate of Saddam’s palaces under a successor government could prove interesting: would they be preserved as museums to record the folly and excess of his rule, torn down by angry mobs, or maintained by a new class of selfish brutes? Whatever the case, Iraq need not be a permanent welfare state; it has adequate natural and human resources to meet the challenge of rebuilding.

Far more important will be social and political repair, both of which will pose a daunting challenge. For example, the reintegration of the Kurdish north is not a given; its brighter economic conditions, freer political environment, and indisputable preference for autonomy mean that the Kurds would have few incentives to regard a unified Iraq as more desirable than their recent, impressive self-governing experience. Should a sense of Iraqi patriotism and the international community’s inducements convince them to work toward Iraqi unity, the Kurds could rightfully claim an important role in the transition. As major players in the various iterations of the united Iraqi opposition, the Kurds hosted the Iraqi National Congress during the critical years in which it operated on Iraqi soil, before the regime’s incursion into Irbil in September 1996. The two Kurdish party leaders, Masud Barzani and Jalal Talebani (heads of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, respectively), are currently on good terms because they are running their respective zones of northern Iraq separately; both would be legitimate claimants to seats in a collective leadership arrangement for all of Iraq.

Yet, Sunnis from the heartland of Iraq, along with the country’s beleaguered Shi’i majority, would almost certainly have other ideas. The Sunnis are disproportionately represented in the leadership of the key national institutions (including the army), and their active participation in a successor government would therefore be vital to national stability. Whether the Shi’is believe that power would shift to them in a more representative system is not clear. Those Shi’is who dare to be politically active in the current system appear to hold a wide range of different political views. Many have been co-opted by the regime and have cast their lot with the incumbent elite, while others have Islamist or leftist leanings. Still others are active in the pluralistic opposition groups and profess to embrace a democratic future for Iraq.

Aside from issues of representation under a new regime, many more immediate problems would affect relations between the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’is. Should law and order-already reported to be quite precarious-erode further, vendettas and bloodletting among these groups could erupt and become difficult to suppress. For example, Kurds displaced from regime-controlled towns in the north (e.g., Mosul) by Saddam’s Arabization drive may want to reclaim their property. Similarly, many Shi’is, including those in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in central Iraq, hold deep grievances over their treatment by mainly Sunni-led security forces, indicating that intercommunal violence could well occur in various parts of the country. Such tensions could become an enduring problem for Iraq, one possibly exacerbated by the emergence of political parties based on communal identity.

The reintegration of even a modest proportion of the estimated four million Iraqi exiles could also have a wide impact on the post-Saddam transition, particularly in terms of revenue flows and the inculcation of ideas of tolerance and political openness acquired abroad. Yet, Iraqis who have endured Saddam’s rule may feel a greater entitlement to positions of privilege and leadership, and tensions could well arise between them and newly returned émigrés who had been spared the physical deprivations of life inside Iraq.4 Exiled Iraqis would no doubt have a difficult time establishing their political bona fides in post-Saddam Iraq, especially if no clearly accepted leader emerged among them. Competition among the returnees can be assumed; consensus on who speaks for them is highly unlikely. Although the potential economic, political, and social pressures of rapid repatriation should not be underestimated, both Iraqis and the international community would likely view the return of émigré Iraqis as a sign of a society making itself whole again.

Regional Impact

Iraq’s neighbors-all of whom are experiencing their own problems of governance and economic insufficiencies-will find the transition to the post-Saddam era unsettling. The Western view that change in Iraq would remove a serious security threat from the region is not held by all; some rationalize that a weak, contained Iraq is manageable and perhaps preferable to a newly empowered and accepted Iraq. In the event of regime change, neighboring countries could face immediate challenges from associates of Saddam’s regime who, fearing retribution, flee Iraq and seek asylum or safe passage elsewhere. Moreover, concerns about lawlessness in Iraq could lead its neighbors to bolster their border defenses and place their armed forces on alert.

Regional leaders are even more uncertain about the political direction that a post-Saddam Iraq could take, including its potential impact on political forces in their own countries. Some leaders may fear that change in Iraq could unleash demands for similar change at home. Jordan, for one, could weather a post- Saddam transition, particularly if Jordanians were still preoccupied with the Palestinian quagmire. Moreover, Jordan is generally sympathetic with the Iraqi people and would benefit from the revitalization of the Iraqi economy. Similarly, the Gulf states would embrace a post-Saddam Arab leader and would seek assurances that their blood feud with Iraq was over.

In Turkey and Iran, the uncertainties may be greater. Ankara would not sit idly if it perceived that the Kurds were exploiting a power vacuum in Baghdad. For its part, Tehran has grown accustomed to a weak Iraq and would worry about latent hegemonic intentions in the minds of any Iraqi successor regime.

The West, and the United States in particular, would need to watch inter-Arab dynamics carefully in the wake of Saddam’s ouster. Common sense dictates that a new leader in Baghdad would attempt to appear nonthreatening and to ingratiate himself with current Western leaders, in addition to seeking rapid normalization of political and trade ties. But other scenarios are possible.

For example, should the Arab-Israeli zone still be in acute agitation when Iraqi regime change occurs, the new leader in Baghdad could serve as a galvanizing force in the Arab world, reestablishing Iraq’s leadership credentials by striking out boldly on the Palestinian issue. Although incumbent regimes look to the Arab League summit communiqué and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace plan as the coordinated Arab position on this issue, a new Iraqi leader could stake out a more defiant position that attracts large segments of Arab society by openly criticizing the more cautious approach of other regimes. This is not to suggest that Iraq would intervene militarily, but it could offer new moral support for Palestinian violence or question the Arab consensus in troublesome ways. By exploiting both the palpable anger seen across the Arab world and the presumably strong anti-American attitudes inside Iraq itself, a new Iraqi regime could assume leadership of a more radical, rejectionist Arab approach to the Palestinian issue, creating momentum that would have a chilling effect on moderate positions.

Iraq and the International Community

Regime change in Baghdad would give the international community a chance to work collectively on healing the wounds of the past decade and transforming Iraq from a source of menace to a source of regional stability. The strong international coalition forged in 1990 to oust Iraq from Kuwait has eroded over such problems as Iraqi noncompliance with UN resolutions on weapons. Tensions have increased recently over U.S. intentions and policies regarding regime change.

Once change occurs, however, those countries with a stake in Iraq’s future, including Middle Eastern neighbors, major European trading partners, and Russia, can begin a new chapter. Most everyone in the international community would be eager to help a new regime in Iraq establish itself, manage law and order internally, and begin the process of reconciliation and reconstruction. Aid in support of humanitarian relief, infrastructure improvements, and institution building would likely flow from a plethora of international organizations, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations. The reestablishment of human ties with Iraqi civil society would also be critical. Cultural exchanges and training programs would be particularly important in updating Iraqis on what has been happening in civil society elsewhere in the Arab world and beyond.

At the same time, the international community would demand that the new regime declare its peaceful intentions toward its neighbors and commit itself to meaningful limitations on armaments. The details of these commitments would be enshrined in new UN resolutions or legally binding agreements. Western allies may well differ somewhat over the extent of this disarmament. Whatever the case, a post-Saddam Iraq should be permitted an effective modern military that could fulfill basic defensive requirements and retain its status as an elite institution in the country.

In fact, controlling Iraqi ambition while preserving a healthy sense of national identity and pride will be one of the key challenges once Saddam is removed. After all, the international community’s dispute is with Saddam’s regime; any strategy that aims to make Iraq a permanently weak state or that appears punitive to Iraqi society would be shortsighted. Policymakers would do well to recall that America’s treatment of Japan’s emperor as the embodiment of Japanese identity proved to be an inspired piece of statesmanship following World War II. The United States should permit, even encourage, Saddam’s successor to express pride in Iraq’s history and achievements-to highlight elements of Iraq’s pre-Saddam past that will help unite the country and give the Iraqi people hope for the future.

Ultimately, the role that a post-Saddam Iraq plays in the region-whether of regional hegemon or cooperative neighbor -will be determined by a number of factors: Will Iraq’s neighbors be confident enough domestically to establish a new regional security dialogue? Will the United States be able to shape that debate? Will the Arab-Israeli conflict become a permanent preoccupation, or will progress be made toward resolution? Will Iran become a reliable regional partner, or will it pose new risks to Iraq that drive the security calculations of a new regime in Baghdad? How the United States comes to view Iraqi power and potential once Saddam is gone will be determined in part by the answers to these questions. U.S. policies will play a critical role in reaching those answers; the rest is up to the Iraqis themselves.


1. Some question whether Iraq is in fact that far ahead of other Arab societies. See Isam al-Khafaji, “The Myth of Iraqi Exceptionalism,” Middle East Policy 7, no. 4 (October 2000), pp. 62-86. Looking at socioeconomic indicators in the aggregate, al-Khafaji makes a compelling case that Iraq at its peak was not significantly different from other Arab states. My argument here, however, focuses more on the technocratic elite.

2. See, for example, the “Country Reports” on Iraq offered by Social Watch, a nongovernmental watchdog organization that monitors poverty worldwide (available on the group’s website:

3. See, for example, Mark Bowden’s gripping article “Tales of the Tyrant,” Atlantic Monthly 289, no. 5 (May 2002), p. 53.

4. Similar political dynamics were seen between Palestinians who remained under Israeli occupation and those who lived in exile with Yasir Arafat. In that case, however, the returnees were accorded instant legitimacy by their association with the Palestinian leader.

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