Future may judge US attack harshly

WAR ON IRAQ/Lawrence Freedman

Business Day

October 7, 2003

IT IS an iron law of warfare that the unintended consequences, for good and bad, are as important if not more so than the intended. Because these consequences take time to work themselves through, the long-term reputations of wars rarely reflect the first reviews.

Take the 1991 war against Iraq. Early reviews were positive for a war fought with moderation by a broad-based coalition sponsored by the United Nations (UN). But later the assessment darkened and moderation was recast as timidity, creating more problems than it solved.

By contrast, the early reviews of this year's war have been terrible. Its radicalism appears as recklessness, based on exaggerated intelligence and unwarranted optimism about postwar Iraq.

Will a long-term assessment look better? In 1991, the aftermath appeared relatively unproblematic. Saddam Hussein was not expected to survive such a humiliating defeat. If he did, he could be contained by UN monitoring, sanctions and a regional US military presence.

The results were less impressive. The conservative Gulf states reverted to their prewar, authoritarian complacency. After the Kurds and Shiites rose against Saddam, the Americans and British decided, in what now appears as a mistake of historic proportions, not to help.

The situation became progressively less stable. If President George Bush had steered clear of Iraq, the picture now would not be one of containment. Before last year, France and Russia had been content to see sanctions and UN inspections end. The most likely alternative was Saddam's Iraq would reassert itself. Shutting off this alternative, and in the process overthrowing an oppressive regime, was a benefit of the war.

Against this must be set the mess of postwar Iraq. The poor security situation, aggravated by extraordinarily feeble US preparations for the role of occupying power, is delaying rebuilding. There was never much of a link between Saddam's Iraq and al-Qaeda, but America's Iraq is becoming a magnet for Islamic militants.

Optimistic assertions that Iraq would emerge quickly as a beacon of Arab democracy, subsidised by oil exports, now seem hopelessly far-fetched.

By contrast with 1991, this time round the sense of satisfaction at a job well done has been short-lived and there is a more sober realisation of the larger job left. US policy credibility now hinges on its ability to stick to this task and produce a stable Iraq with a legitimate government and a good chance of prosperity.

Meanwhile, some unintended consequences are becoming evident. With its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is bound to hesitate before taking on another adventure, such as in Iran or North Korea. Instead of an assertive US removing one rogue regime after another, the allies may soon complain about excessive caution in the face of severe challenges that cannot be met without a fully engaged US. Financial Times

Freedman is head of the school of social science and public policy at King's College, London.

Oct 07 2003 07:43:35:000AM Business Day 1st Edition