A Familiar Future For Iraq

We have been hearing a lot of divergent scenarios for the outcome of the current war in Iraq. The Bush administration is predicting a new dawn of democracy and freedom. Its detractors are predicting at worst an immediate bloodbath, and at best an American occupation that slides into anarchy and civil war. But there is a third possibility that is never mentioned by either camp: That very, very little will change.

Up until now, Iraq has been ruled by a relatively efficient and modern, though brutal, secular dictatorship. Except for the inconvenient detail that this dictatorship is headed by Saddam Hussein, a man who in recent years has not been a good American client and trading partner, this is exactly the sort of government that Bush, Cheney and company would deal with most easily in the region. So why should they not leave everything exactly as it is, only without Saddam, and with America as partner-in-chief?

At the moment, the American military is carefully leaving Baghdad's power system, water lines and communications intact, and everyone seems to agree that this is because the US will shortly be running the place, and wants it to be in good shape. I suspect that our leaders' attitude toward the government is similar.

It is no wonder the US State Department has been so cool to the Iraqi exiles. Such men have no experience running the country, and in any case they are clearly troublemakers. Much more sensible to keep the Baath Party in power, perhaps with a change of name, but otherwise managing everything more or less as it has been.

This scenario explains some baffling conundrums: Why "regime change" in Iraq, rather than in any of the other vile dictatorships in the region? Easy. Iraq is uniquely equipped with a smooth-running bureaucracy that can switch headmen virtually overnight with minimal protest from anyone.

Why, as a reaction to September 11, is the US attacking the Arab government that is most hated by Osama bin Laden and the other Islamic fundamentalists? Easy. After the American victory, the Iraqi police will be hunting down "terrorists" with new zeal, side by side with the CIA.

Cynical? Of course, but that does not mean it is not good sense, looked at from the point of view of the empire-builders. "The business of America is business," and it is good business practice to keep everything running as smoothly as possible. Iraq is not like Afghanistan, an obstacle course of mountain ranges and fiercely independent warlords; it is a country that, if not too badly damaged in the fighting, can be up and running in no time.

Once the war is over, the Americans will encourage no disruptive social revolutions, no splitting up the country to provide an ethnic Kurdish homeland, and certainly no fully democratic elections that might bring Islamic fundamentalists into power. Bush has always said that he wants "regime change," but also that to him the regime consists of one man.

The message is clear, and very likely attainable: Once Saddam is gone, America will be satisfied with business as usual.

Elijah Wald is the author of "Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerillas."

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