Pre-Emptive Regime Change -
Destruction Of The Nation State?
By Terrell E. Arnold

Talk in Washington for the past several weeks on when and how to take out Saddam Hussein has been conducted at a level of almost childish faith in the utility of regime change as a way of disposing of the country's enemies and creating friendly governments. In the groups and individuals close around the President, this action has taken on an urgency that is wholly out of step with official Washington's willingness to endure Saddam's presence in Baghdad for several decades. The premise of promoters in the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the Defense Policy Board (DPB), and other enthusiasts is that taking out Saddam will usher in a new era of tranquility in the Middle East. A generous menu of options being considered by the promoters is now public, thanks to a wholly new standard of Washington 'leaking', but it is hard to tell whether the leaks are trial balloons, pre-emptive policy thrusts, power grabs for the promoting groups, or inept official information management. Nonetheless, it is possible to examine in depth the tragic flaws in the idea of a pre-emptive regime change in Iraq, even though any real planning is probably being closely held among the true believers.

Why is Saddam Still Around?

The first question--what will be the flavor of Iraqi leadership after Saddam--if raised at all, has gone wholly-unanswered. One possible answer is to cobble together a group of exiles who appear to have in common mainly the fact that they were out of step, out of favor, and out of patience enough to leave. The second question--what keeps Saddam in power--if raised, appears to have focused on the wrong answer. Most commonly one hears that Saddam is a ruthless SOB who brooks no opposition and who stifles the fortunes and/or the breath of any promising candidate for succession. That indeed is a cardinal rule for staying on top as a dictator, but Saddam neither created this model nor is he alone in following it.

Another answer that needs careful thought is simply that Saddam is still around because he has been able to maintain various coalitions of the elites. Saddam's principal chips for doing that have being money, power and influence, to say nothing, in some cases, of life itself.

Because their futures are at stake, these elites are likely to lead, or at least finance, a street-by- street battle for Baghdad, and unless they also are removed or leave in any Saddam exodus, any cluster of exiles will have to reckon with them. The results of the bargaining will certainly bode ill for the expectations of the regime changers. To know how badly that often works, one need only review British experience in Iraq.

One of the problems of Iraq, partly due to Saddam, is that the country is caught in a time warp. Over a long period, rule by fiat creates habits of mind and behavior that do not change quickly or uniformly. While Saddam did not invent the problems of the Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, the Kurds, and the Turkmen in Iraq, he did not try to build cohesion by any means other than brute force. Planting the seed of democracy and throwing water on it wonât do much without firm guidance and education, all of which take years of patient effort.

What Are The Ground Rules?

What is the set of ground rules the United States may be forging by taking out the leadership of a nation merely because US officials do not like it, do not trust it, fear its warlike capabilities and future decisions, or think it has Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs)? The roster of countries that have or seek such weapons easily exceeds twenty. Is the plan to go after all of them? If the decision is to go after them, will it make any difference what form of government and leadership they have, or will the sole driver be suspicion of production and/or possession of WMDs?

At the end of World War II, mainly the former colonial powers either revalidated or created our present system of nation states. That system has numerous problems, but it has served the world reasonably well. This system depended heavily on two factors: The first was delineation, codification and international recognition of boundaries around each state. Much of the world map was already drawn, but during the immediate post-war decades, the bulk of the world's colonial real estate was allotted, mainly to the people who lived in specific pieces of it. Israel was an exception to this rule. The territories of nation states that we now know and largely accept emerged from this process. The second factor, an ancient principle of statehood, was general agreement among nations that the people within each nation state had the final word on who ruled them and how. The United States and others have made many attempts to interfere, but the basic rule remains that the choices of form of government and leadership are strictly local options.

The Prime Sources of Trouble

A factor that was not dealt with in post war mapmaking was the rich array of out-groups and ethnic, religious and cultural enclaves that existed in many of the resultant nation states. The disposition, assimilation, exclusion, or otherwise of those groups was left to the leadership of each state. Some pungent liquors, e.g., Afghanistan with at least five contending tribal groups and warlords, remain with us. Bosnia, or the whole remnant of Post-World War II Yugoslavia is another case in point. A consensus procedure that is well short of democratic, as we define it, has been the rule among these tribal groups and many others for millennia.

The effect of the process has been that, although the world is largely free of wars between nations, there are many countries that are not internally at peace. A review of data in US Department of State annual reports shows that groups in at least 20 countries seek separation from their parent states. Groups in at least 35-40 additional countries are bent on overthrowing current regimes. That is close to a third of all present nation states. Those countries, for better or worse, represent the slow fuse that can explode any plan for pre-emptive regime change. Getting individual tribes or ethnic groups to apply some democratic leadership selection procedure is not nearly as difficult as getting the tribes and factions within present state bounds to work together in some common regime, democratic or not. The recent tendency of Sub-Sahara African countries to break up along tribal lines is one manifestation of the difficulty.

How potentially explosive the situation can be was displayed suddenly and graphically with the fall of the Soviet Union. The nationalities of the former Union flew the coop as rapidly as possible, and some such as the Chechens are still trying.

The Need For Reform

The widespread tendencies for states to splinter indicate that globally the system of nation states is unstable and in need of reform. In the late fifties and sixties, the United States thought it could deal with the problems of poverty and non-participation, and help bring the out-groups and enclaves into national systems by promoting rapid economic development. That did not work because we had neither the correct models nor the will to involve ourselves enough to get it done. Our own transformation as a society had taken almost two centuries, but we expected instant results in any country we assisted. That did not happen. Governments were reluctant to address the out-group problems, and we did not wish to intervene. Some people got rich, most stayed poor or got poorer, the out-groups advanced hardly at all, and we had inadequate stamina for it. We ended up with our present approach: try to feed the poorest of the poor, ignore development, and don't address the out-group problems.

No better formula has been put forward. We used the Marshall Plan and like programs to restore Western Europe and Japan, but we were totally at sea on how to promote major social transformations in much of the developing world, and we still are. The UN predicts dire conditions for the planet by mid-century if the wealthy nations do not do a better job in the years ahead, but it will be tough, because population may reach 9 billion by 2050.

On political reform, we are equally at sea. The best tools we have evolved are evolutionary processes of change, not precipitate transformations of oligarchic nations such as Iraq into modern states. The key task we have been unable to perform well, or reliably, is selection/identification of the right people. The task is to find capable people who are in for the long haul, have a concept of national interest, genuinely want their nations to grow and prosper, and are not mere influence peddlers and power seekers. Here, whether we exercised choice directly or indirectly, we repeatedly have used our own criteria of selection. Few of the regime changes that occurred were to our liking. Some durable ones were anything but likeable.

The US Leadership Problem

With respect to the pending Iraqi decisions, in the history of the United States it has always been possible that core leadership could operate for indefinite periods without consulting anybody outside the inner circle. In the media rich world of today, one has to be a good deal more focused and of stronger will to take that course, because the noise level goes up rapidly, and with the combination of print and electronic media plus the internet, every corner will be heard from. Thus, several groups are watching and commenting upon the small cluster of Iraq decision makers. The problem is that there appears to exist no counterweight to a group inside and close to the White House who, following the leaders of the Program for the New American Century and the Defense Policy Board, have chosen to carry out a coup and leave the rest of the country, including the Congress, on the sidelines while they play out their own scenarios on how the world should be run.

The Iraq take-down promoters cite polls showing wide public interest in Saddam Hussein, but it pays to be skeptical of these polls. The media have made Saddam into a popular villain. That notoriety is enhanced by the attention Washington leaders give him. The concern about Saddam is thus more a reflection of hit count or name drop frequency than it is of any hard knowledge of how real or imminent a threat Saddam may represent to American interests. PNAC and other promoters of a war against Iraq count on this kind of superficial support to justify their venture, and their use of such polls misleads the President. The moment Americans die in the encounter, however, that support will evaporate.

The regime changers around the President, momentarily we hope, also have forgotten the complex, global, interdependent system we thrive on. "Thrive on" is the key term, because our enormous economic power is locked into that system. If it works, we continue to grow and prosper. If it doesn't, we falter. We may not hurt as much as others, but the bloom goes off the rose quickly if the rest of this global system flounders. We can try to tell this system how to behave, but we do not have enough people in enough places with enough experience, judgment and influence to do that job. We cannot succeed as an island in a sea of hostility

To our detriment, this group of leaders actually violates a critical principle of American governance: That we will change leadership regularly and introduce new blood. What we are watching, with the exception of George W. Bush, who is not in control of this group, is a cabal of old blood that is frozen on a deadly course. Members of this group have been in government so often and at such high levels that they have acquired that true arrogance of power which our system was designed to prevent. At one point, with George W. Bush so obviously inexperienced in foreign affairs, it looked comforting to have the old hands on board. On their present courses, we may or may not live to regret it.

Regime Change Versus Terrorism

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is seeking allies to help conduct the war on terrorism, and there are clear signs that the plan to overthrow Saddam works against it. As part of this effort, US officials are promising heads of government that if they join in the war against terrorism Washington will look the other way on human rights violations. With such promises the US acquires allies in the short run.

In the long run, however, the situation is a Catch 22. In most cases, it is the out-groups, not the governments, who are the sources of terrorism, and cooperation with the US on terrorism means not only working against Al Qaeda, but also against local potential recruits. Thus, a terrorism generator has been revived or left untended in each country where US officials have ever so quietly indicated that it is OK to repress the out-groups.

As the war on terrorism progresses, out-group resentment and desire to spin off from various parent states will increase. As discussed below, some out-group problems might be solved in an Iraqi regime change. However, hardly any government in the Middle East is likely to be pleased by deals with Iraqi out-groups that significantly alter the map of two or three countries.

In the forty or more failed or failing states, each has problems of leadership, and virtually all have out-groups who either have access to or close friends in other countries, including the US and Europe. If the governments of the failed and failing states come down hard on their out-groups in support of the war on terrorism, the task of controlling outbreaks will grow. Because none of these groups has enough members to take on a government unaided, alliances of Al Qaeda type will proliferate. The only weapon readily available to them is some form of terrorism. Unfortunately, the most attention-getting form of terrorism is attacks on civilian targets.

As the Israeli have shown conclusively in the West Bank and Gaza, heavy-handed and powerful military operations cannot prevent the attack of even a 17 year old girl carrying explosives. We are facing similar limitations in Afghanistan. In short, it is not in our interest to continue generating new sources of terrorism by condoning repressive tactics of other governments. We cannot stop all the products of these human failures. That we will fail miserably to stop terrorists everywhere, all the time, is virtually certain. In this environment, the costs of leaving Iraq alone pale by comparison to the potential effects of going ahead.

What About Negotiation?

Over time, Saddam has been astute about finding the lines he should not cross. If you listen to the Iraqi Ambassador to the UN, the Iraqis are looking and sounding like they want to talk, perhaps even seriously to negotiate. If that is so, then, if the hardliners stop now, we can say our bluff worked, that threats sometimes do the trick. No blood has been spilled. If we want that, inspectors can be put back to work. With their findings, we may move a few millimeters closer to knowing whether Saddam actually has weapons of mass destruction. But we will have avoided turning the region into a quagmire.

Saudi Arabia then takes center stage. A new voice in the person of Crown Prince Abdullah entered the Middle East debate in March, putting on the table a clear proposal for peace in Palestine. However, rather than give the Saudis credit for knowing what their true interests are, our hardliners, apparently led by leaders of the Program for the New American Century and the Defense Policy Board, have decided that the Saudis must do things our way and give us what we want or they become ãthe enemyä. Given what was said earlier about the experience and the rank of the key players, this outcome makes no sense. It may be exhilarating to take on the center of Islam in a public dispute over intelligence sharing. However, today there are over one billion Muslims, and the policy maker who invites one out of every six people on the planet to become our enemy cannot be our friend.

The law of large numbers intervenes soberly to work against us. In addition to a billion Muslims, there are four and two-thirds billion other people out there who are deeply interested in what we do, look positively most of the time on relations with us, but who are not wedded to what we do. With 3 billion more people on the planet by 2050, the numbers will be even more skewed. Perhaps we can manage significant parts of our defense problem with high tech, long reach, high performance, standoff weaponry, but we cannot beat the human numbers problem. There are simply more people in more places than we currently have, or are ever likely to have trained human resources or technical assets to watch. We have chopped away at our official offshore presence in so many places that we barely have traction in many countries.

If we enter the tense, unfriendly world that will exist after an attack on Iraq, and even more if we follow with attacks on Syria, Sudan and a few other chosen culprit states, we simply do not have the resources to watch our backs in all the places where they will be exposed. Wealthy and powerful we may be. Omnipotent and omnipresent we are not. We need all the help we can get from friendly governments and well-disposed people.

The Iraqi Case Model

The case model for unraveling the nation state system is Iraq itself. It contains the common regional Islamic puzzle of how to sort Sunni and Shia Muslims and deal with their respective extremists. Iraq's major ethnic/cultural problems center, however, on the northwestern regions inhabited by Turkmen, Kurds and Shi'a Muslims. Baghdad, for obvious reason÷oil and national territory--has resisted any concessions to any of these groups for at least half a century. Various political factions in Baghdad may argue over whether a new Iraqi government will be right, center, or left, but the Turkmen and the Kurds want their own separate pieces of territory no matter how things turn out in Baghdad.

As between the Turkmen and the Kurds, the lines are drawn solidly around the city of Kirkuk, which each wants exclusively for both traditional ethnic reasons and for its location in Iraqâs oldest but still highly productive oil fields. Both Iran and Turkey also get involved in this dispute. Iraqi concessions to the Turkmen may be greeted with favor by Ankara, but not concessions to the Kurds whose people seek both Turkish and Iraqi territory, and pressures would mount for separation. Iran will be concerned about what happens to the Shiite Muslims who are mainly ethnic Iranians. The Kurdish Workers Party, PKK has been a major terrorist threat to Turkey, but reached an agreement with Ankara after its leader, Ocalan, who was captured in 1999, launched a peace initiative in 2000. Most members of the group are in Iraq. Any peace initiative would come apart if the Iraqi settlement went against the Kurds.

Multiply this model with varying orders of grievance by 40 or so. What happens in each case will be driven by local factors. The world's current hotspots, along with the great majority of its international terrorism-generating disputes, center on areas of the globe where boundary drawing was inept, insensitive, uncaring, or a matter of indifference to the powers whose leaders drew the up. The resulting elites in those countries have done nothing about this problem, because the reigning concept of statehood says that there is no give on boundaries or territory. The established rule of statehood literally cements these conflicts in time and place. The unheeded grievances of out-groups make the situations potentially explosive.

The reform of the nation state system is overdue, but little if any thought has been given to how to do it. With respect to Iraq, the problem presents a deal-killing quandary for Washington's regime changers. If they ignore the clamor of the Turkmen and the Kurds, the Iraqi succession outcome will only make Iraqâs political situation unstable, even volatile. If the regime changers make territorial concessions to either the Turkmen or the Kurds or both, the stage is set for statehood, as we now know it, to unravel anywhere out-groups can make it happen.

What Is In It For Us?

The Iraq road signs caution that we need to weigh carefully what will result from a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, versus what we will retain if we desist.

If we attack and win, we will have the chance to change the regime. But in what fashion or what degree is presently unclear. Any post-Hussein government has an uncertain future. If installed by us the new regime's chances are bleak, because considerable hostility will go with our involvement. Moreover, it is doubtful we will stick around long enough to assure successful transition. We get the chance to terminate as yet unknown weapons programs, but with reams of reports on this subject, we apparently still do not know how important that will be. We alienate significant numbers of people and their governments. We make enemies of friendly Arab governments. The Saudis are among them, with power to hurt, as shown by recent large withdrawals from US banks.

On the other hand, if we desist, we save enormous resources, starting with a substantial number of American lives. We avoid alienating, at least for a time, many friendly governments. We avoid setting in motion the decay of the nation state system that, with all its faults, is the best global operating system weâve found so far because of its ability to promote friendly dealings of different cultures across mutually accepted borders.

We leave the growing problems of out-groups in failed and failing states unresolved. That demands serious attention for the future, no matter what we do in Iraq.

We end up having to put up with Saddam, but he has been around a while, and he will go the way of all flesh. While neither he nor we can predict the time and manner of that event, it would be best all around for Allah to decide the outcome, not American hardliners and their supporters among the Israeli and the Christian right.

Terrell E. Arnold is a Retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the United States Department of State.


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