Time for nation-building

Posted: Feb 25, 2003 12:00 AM
I'm for war. I know I'm not supposed to say that. War is hell. War is unpredictable. War is evil. It is all those things. But war is sometimes better than the alternative. What do we now think of people who argued for "peace" when Hitler was retaking the Rhineland? We think they were fools. As Churchill said: "One ought never to turn one's back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half." The war with Iraq is first and foremost a war to prevent a reckless and insanely cruel dictator from acquiring the nuclear weapons he avidly seeks and which would make him invulnerable. As more than a decade of resolutions, reproaches and failed diplomacy have demonstrated, there is no way short of war to remove Saddam or coax him into civilized behavior. Of course war is risky, but avoiding war is sometimes even riskier. And in the case of the United States, Great Britain and a coalition of other advanced societies versus Iraq, let's be clear: The dangers are not very great. Iraq collapsed within a few hours of the first Gulf War's ground campaign. Saddam's conscript army is poorly led and poorly supplied, and has not even recovered its pre-Gulf War strength. Its weapons are no match for ours. Our military has trained and planned for any eventuality, including Saddam's resort to chemical or biological weapons. Something disastrous is always possible. But the likely scenario for the coming war is a rapid Iraqi collapse followed by dancing in the streets of Baghdad. The postwar period will not be without challenges, but with danger comes opportunity. In the process of rebuilding Iraq, we have an opening to affect the course of history for the entire Middle East -- the region that is the incubator for America's most dangerous enemies. The Arab world's hatred and resentment of the United States has many roots -- envy, frustration over the Islamic world's stagnation vis a vis the West, anger at American support for Israel and dismay at America's popular culture. We cannot wave a magic wand and make those resentments disappear. But we can look honestly at the countries of the region and recognize, as a 2002 United Nations report documents, that they are among the most backward nations on earth. Sixty-five million Arabs, or about 23 percent of a total population of 280 million, are illiterate. The position of women in Arab lands is even worse than in sub-Saharan Africa. The gross domestic product in all of the Arab states combined was $531.2 billion in 1999 -- less than that of Spain alone ($595.5 billion). And real per capita income has grown by only 0.5 percent per year since 1975. Oil wealth has made some Arabs luxuriously wealthy but has not pulled the region as whole into the modern industrial world. Most Arab countries have unemployment rates in the 15 percent range and surveys in a number of different countries reflect widespread dissatisfaction. Fifty-one percent of young people according to U.N. sources said they'd like to emigrate. It will not be easy to transform despotic, police state Iraq into a multi-party pluralistic democracy that respects human rights. But it probably didn't seem that Japan or Germany were good candidates either in 1945. Backwardness, despotism and a violence-prone religious elite have made the Arab world a cauldron of radicalism. But if the nation in the geographical and metaphorical heart of the Arab world were to be firmly planted on the road to freedom, prosperity and pluralism, it will represent a decisive rollback of the forces of darkness. It's no wonder that Saudi Arabia, Iraq's neighbor to the south, is scheming for Saddam to be deposed and publicly calling upon him to commit suicide. They know very well that a reformed Iraq will be a beacon for all Arabs. No wonder Syria is helping Iraq to hide its weapons of mass destruction. Americans have scorned nation-building in the past. But we can no longer afford that particular luxury. The repressive, cruel and closed nations of the Muslim world have bred a fanaticism that has already been profoundly painful to us and may be catastrophically so in the near future. The question of war will be decided within weeks, but there is far more at stake than Iraq's fate.