GLOCOM Platform
Debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books & Journals
Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (April 16, 2003)

Implications of the Iraq War

Ralph Cossa (President of the Pacific Forum CSIS, Hawaii, U.S.A)

Why diplomacy failed in Iraq remains a subject of intense debate. Even Baghdad's supporters could not argue that Iraq had fully complied with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which found Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime in material breach of numerous earlier resolutions and promised "serious consequences" if Iraq did not fully and immediately disarm.

Would giving the U.N. inspectors more time have made a difference, as France, Russia, China and others argued? We'll never know. The decision by the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" to proceed without U.N. endorsement left that question for historians to ponder.

Many would argue that the debate had already become moot once France made it clear that it would veto any amendment implicitly authorizing the use of force against Iraq -- French President Jacques Chirac seemed more concerned about containing U.S. President George W. Bush (or American global leadership in general) than Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

If nothing else, Chirac's unyielding stance provided ample fodder for late night comedians, who otherwise were straining to find some humor in the war. The most cutting comment came from America's leading daytime comedian, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who observed that "Going to war without France is like going duck hunting without your accordion."

Such comments went down well with many Americans, but, like his earlier characterization of France and Germany as "old Europe," did little to help the fine art of diplomacy.

While the outcome of the war was never in doubt, its long-term implications remain to be determined. These will be driven by a number of as yet to be fully determined factors. One will be the duration of the war and subsequent contested occupation and the number of U.S. casualties. While significant dangers persist for the troops on the ground, by all reasonable standards save one, the war progressed remarkably smoothly with minimal coalition casualties.

The "save one," however, is American public and media expectations. Despite numerous Pentagon warnings that the war would be neither quick nor easy, many expected -- and arguably were led to believe -- that the conflict would be over in days. "Shock and awe" were supposed to result in quick capitulation measured in days, not weeks.

Nonetheless, the actual accomplishments on the ground (and from the air) have been truly impressive and U.S. public support seems to remain strong, at least for the troops themselves if not always for their civilian leaders. How much longer after "victory" is declared the troops will have to remain, and how dangerous their continued presence proves to be, remain to be seen. If the truth be told, many in Asia seem quietly encouraged that the war lasted longer than anticipated and has not been casualty free, apparently hoping that this might help temper future U.S. eagerness to apply military solutions to political problems.

It is useful to remember, also, that the official reason for the coalition invasion was to disarm Iraq. While the discovery of weapons of mass destruction is not likely to draw an apology from France, Russia or others who seemed to think that the U.N. inspectors were successfully doing their job, a failure to find them is sure to reinforce the views of those who saw the war as unjust, regardless of how quickly or painlessly Hussein's regime crumbled. Unambiguous proof is needed. There will be considerable international and domestic political ramifications if no weapons of mass destruction are found.

Another factor, more important to Asians, especially Muslim Asians, will be the extent of civilian casualties -- again remarkably light (based on current, admittedly speculative calculations), despite Iraqi tendencies to keep civilians in harm's way -- and the nature of post-Hussein Iraq, including what role, if any, the United Nations will play in administering the country.

The consequences here will be hard to measure. Surely, a significantly higher final civilian-casualty count and a prolonged American occupation, especially if it is seen as linked to exploitation of Iraqi oil resources, will exacerbate tensions and generate negative reactions, particularly in Muslim communities.

The fact that liberated Muslims in Kuwait, Kosovo and Afghanistan are considerably better off today than before U.S.-led efforts against their oppressors earned the U.S. little slack in dealing with an Iraqi regime that deliberately killed many more innocent Muslims (in Iran, Kuwait and in Iraq itself) than died accidentally from U.S. bombing.

Another key factor has little to do with the war on the ground in Iraq. One point Muslims consistently bring up in discussing U.S. Middle East actions is the plight of the Palestinians. Largely overlooked in the Iraq media frenzy has been the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister to share power with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and a U.S. pledge to push forward with a "nonnegotiable" road map (in cooperation with Russia, the European Union, and the U.N.) for moving toward Palestinian statehood once the prime minister is firmly in place.

If this new initiative is seen as balanced (i.e., it obtains concessions from Israel as well as from the Palestinian Authority, especially regarding settlements in the occupied territories), this could significantly reduce any long-term negative impact generated by the war on Iraq.

The most important factor could be what Washington does next. One can argue that pursuing the ongoing war in Afghanistan (remember Osama bin Laden?) and mopping up in Iraq should keep Rumsfeld's department sufficiently busy for years to come. Yet many others seem convinced that the Taliban/al-Qaeda and Hussein are just the top two on a long U.S. hit list, causing many to ask "who's next?"

If Washington's response to the downfall of Hussein's regime is to immediately and harshly turn its attention toward Iran's apparent budding nuclear ambitions or to abruptly abandon its current diplomatic approach toward resolving its differences with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, many may conclude that perhaps Chirac was right, that it is the Bush administration that now must be contained.

(This article originally appeared in the April 14, 2003 issue of The Japan Times)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications