Behind concern about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, there's another force propelling American forces toward combat in Iraq: A new domino theory.
This version of the theory inverts the original. During the Cold War, the first domino theory held that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, neighboring nations all the way to the Philippines might fall away from us, too -- toppling like dominoes.
The new domino theorists are arguing that if the United States overthrows Hussein and creates a pro-Western democratic regime in Iraq, the example will increase internal pressure to open closed societies such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria. This time the dominoes would fall in our direction.
This theory has become a central -- perhaps the central -- justification for war in conservative circles, especially among the neoconservative foreign policy intellectuals. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the leading bulletin board for conservatives, summarized the case this year: "If the U.S. removes Saddam in the right way, advocating a democracy instead of replacing him with another thug, the lesson will echo through the Arab world."
These arguments have migrated into the administration's own brief for war. The headlines after Bush's United Nations speech focused on his demand that Iraq disarm and comply with a long list of other U.N. resolutions. But Bush also endorsed the neoconservatives' new domino theory, arguing that democracy in Iraq -- as well as in Afghanistan and an independent Palestinian state -- would inspire "reforms throughout the Muslim world."
This goal has implications the administration hasn't fully acknowledged, and may explain some of its recent fuzziness on its ultimate aims in Iraq. For much of the world, an inspection regime that convincingly disarmed Iraq would be enough to end the crisis. But to the extent that President Bush has embraced the new domino theory, that's insufficient. Iraq can't be the first domino unless Hussein is removed and a new, open political system takes root. For the domino theorists, the goal isn't just disarmament but transformation.
In the last two weeks, it's been murky whether that's a nonnegotiable goal for the administration. Not only Bush but Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have lauded the potential benefits of a democratic Iraq. But by declaring their immediate aims to be disarmament and enforcement of U.N. resolutions, they have left it unclear whether the administration would settle for a convincingly disarmed Iraq with Hussein still in charge. What's already clear is that Bush will face significant pressure from domino theorists inside and outside the government not to accept that outcome.
The believers see three big benefits to replacing Hussein with a democratic, Western-leaning leader. The first two are utterly hard-headed. Even more than overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan, they argue, invading Iraq would send a sobering message to other hostile nations. A new Iraqi government might also pump more oil, reducing America's dependence on Saudi Arabia crude. That would give us more freedom to lean on the Saudis to restrain their own extremists.
The third is at the heart of the new domino theory: The belief that establishing what Cheney called a "democratic and pluralistic" Iraq would provide a model that inspires demand for democracy and change in other Arab states.
It's difficult to quarrel with the first two elements in this case. U.S. tanks in Baghdad would surely turn heads in Damascus and Tehran. And reduced reliance on Saudi oil could give U.S. presidents more leverage to pressure the kingdom for change.
But it's much more questionable that the United States can build a democratic Iraq, or that other nations would be drawn to the model if it did. Iraq isn't exactly fertile soil for democracy. Since it became an independent country in 1932, its political life has been defined by military coups, palace intrigue, assassinations and ethnic strife.
Iraq hasn't had any functioning political alternative to Hussein's Baath party for more than three decades. The middle class that provides the basis for democracy has been eroded by the Iraqi dictator's misrule and the impact of economic sanctions. Tensions between Kurds, Sunni Muslims (who have ruled under Hussein) and the majority Shiite Muslims would inevitably erupt if the iron hand is removed. And other nations such as Iran and Turkey would likely poach for influence.
"It is going to be incredibly difficult just to achieve a stable, peaceful and friendly Iraq," says Amy Hawthorne, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The prospect of that entity also taking on a democratic character over time is a challenge unlike any the U.S. has attempted before."
Nor is it certain that a new Iraqi regime built on the rubble of war would have the magnetic pull that domino theorists hope. Many Arabs may recoil from any regime installed at the point of a U.S. gun. And Hawthorne says reformers in neighboring countries may not see a transformation imposed by war as much of a model for peacefully changing their own societies.
These are all reasons to be skeptical about the domino theorists' dreams of exporting democracy to the desert. But they are not necessarily reason to shelve those dreams. The odds of a post-Hussein Iraq becoming the lever to democratize the Middle East are too thin to justify war on that basis alone. But Bush and a majority of Congress still could conclude that an invasion is justified on national security grounds. And if they do, it would be in this country's interest to follow a war with a concerted effort to build an open Iraqi society.
Still, if war comes, as seems likely, the demands of the domino theory could make it an odd one. Going in, the United States will know that everything it destroys in Iraq it will have to pay to rebuild -- and that it will soon need the allegiance of the society that will feel the brunt of battle. Meanwhile, other Arab nations we are trying to enlist, such as Saudi Arabia, would recognize that one of the invasion's long-term purposes is to erode the legitimacy of their own regimes. Squaring these political riddles with the military imperative of ousting Hussein may prove to be an engineering problem much more complex than toppling dominoes.
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