Hmmm. That's not a great sign.
Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim tells MSNBC that a prolonged US military occupation of Iraq could be met with a "religious war." And he's one of our guys, the head of one of the Iraqi exile groups we're relying on to help rebuild the place.
One could jump from this to a few good whacks against the Bush administration. But I think that would miss the point. al-Hakim's statement just underscores the sheer immensity of the task we're setting ourselves up for.
First, a little background. al-Hakim is the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-backed Shia exile group which the Bush administration has cautiously courted in its efforts to bring some unity to the Iraqi opposition.
The MSNBC article, I think, overstates al-Hakim's and SCIRI's importance. "Among the half-dozen Iraqi opposition groups," says the author, "Hakimâs council is the most significant." This may be true in one respect. Some of the opposition groups we support are so pitiful that they have little if any actual presence in Iraq. But though Shias make up the majority in Iraq, it's not at all clear that al-Hakim's brand of Iranian-backed fundamentalism has a big audience.
However that may be, his statements point to a big problem. Even our would-be supporters in regime change don't want to be associated with an occupation by a foreign (and non-muslim) power. And yet there's almost no way we're going to achieve our objectives without a long occupation which is deeply-entrenched and so overwhelming numerically that it can throw a blanket of enforced peace over all the tensions, divisions and rage that Saddam's tyranny has both created and held in check for three decades.
The real problem is that we're embarking on an enterprise which does not admit of half-measures. As Fouad Ajami notes in this article, an American invasion of Iraq will at first almost certainly be viewed as a neo-Imperialist attempt to take over an Arab country, secure its oil wealth, and do various other bad things.
Certainly, this will be the case outside Iraq and probably inside as well. There's a good chance it will always be seen that way. But the only chance of changing the equation is to undertake the sort of thorough-going internal transformation of the country that we managed in Germany and Japan. But as I say, the situation doesn't admit of half measures. You can go in, topple Saddam, turn it over to some oppositionists and wish'em the best. Or you can go for a massive military occupation and thorough reconstruction of the society. (The Army Chief of Staff told a Senate committee yesterday that the numbers needed would total several hundred thousand soldiers.) Anything in between seems doomed to disaster since you'll get all the down-sides of being a non-muslim occupying power and none of the (possible) upsides of installing a quasi-democratic regime. You'll get the fruits of all the region's deep-seated pathologies and no chance to uproot them.
For my own part, I think proponents of the root-and-branch approach miss an important part of why Germany and Japan worked. It's called World War II. One of the reasons the Germans and the Japanese stood still for what we accomplished in their countries is that we had just spent a couple years thoroughly bludgeoning their countries. Day and night bombing against major population centers, the disruption of the economies, the very real threat that if it wasn't us it'd be the Russians taking over, etc.
By 1945, we had pretty much destroyed the Germans' and Japanese' will to fight. And they were pleasantly surprised when they discovered how relatively benign our rule was. The same set of circumstances won't apply to Iraq. And that should be a cause of real concern.
Believe it or not, this isn't meant to say we shouldn't try to accomplish this. Once the decision for war is made it is really the only policy we can pursue. But the scope of enterprise is awe-inspiring.