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The Chaos Theory

Once Saddam is gone, Iraqis may turn on each other. And that could be just the start of a Middle East disintegration
/ Source: Newsweek Web Exclusive

“Shock and awe” is the phrase of the moment, along with “sweets and flowers.” They’re the buzzwords, from the Pentagon and from an exiled Iraqi intellectual respectively, that sum up the Bush administration’s vision of the coming war.

IT’S SUPPOSED TO be an ultra-high-tech blitzkrieg that takes out the core of Saddam Hussein’s regime in a matter of days, followed by the ecstatic joy of liberated Iraqis who shower the arriving Americans with bouquets and baklava. And, personally, I think that’s just what’s going to happen—at first. Skeptics will be silenced. Even French President Jacques Chirac will be shamed. But that’s not all that’s going to happen. Because anarchy and atrocity are also a realistic part of the scenario, and Saddam may well be counting on chaos as part of his last-ditch strategy for salvation.

Why is Saddam passing out guns to every mustached thug from Mosul to the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab? Does he think they’re going to crawl out of their cellars after they’ve been shocked and awed and turn those guns on the American invaders? Few Iraq-watchers among the Middle East’s intelligence services believe Saddam can count on more than several thousand diehard cousins, tribesmen and genocidal accomplices to defend him. And he probably knows that. So what’s he up to?

These analysts expect that once the obsequious sweets and flowers have been dispensed to those awesome guys from the 101st Airborne, Iraqis will pick up their guns and turn them on each other, pillaging and lynching, settling scores and carrying out vendettas that were both encouraged and bottled up through 35 years of sinister, manipulative totalitarian rule. And that’s Saddam’s plan. As the dancing in the street gives way to neck-tie parties, the satellite-TV spectacle could be grim indeed. Pressure on Washington to stop what was already an unpopular war, to bring order at any cost, or to get out, could be enormous. Perhaps Saddam, in his dreams, even thinks the bad publicity will give him the room to survive in some sort of rump-state Iraq.

History would encourage him to think so. In Saddam’s lifetime the Middle East has seen many wars that started with a bang, but ended with a whimper. Great plans go horribly wrong. Good intentions lead to grotesque violence. Israel’s armed forces are state of the art. Nobody blitzes better than the Tsahal. Yet Israel’s triumphant siege of Beirut in 1982 was thwarted when its client forces massacred hundreds of old men, women and children in Sabra and Shatila. Israel’s 1996 “Grapes of Wrath” offensive in southern Lebanon was brought up short after its troops shelled a United Nations refugee camp, killing 107 people, including 24 children, aged three months to nine years, who were lining up for lunch. Such atrocities may or may not be provoked by enemy forces. Inevitably some voices rationalize them as unfortunate collateral damage, but they do have a way of ending offensives.

I don’t think there’s anything on earth that can keep Saddam from going down once U.S. forces go in, whatever his delusions. But when the intramural bloodletting begins, anarchy could push the United States back out of Iraq more effectively than any Saddam-organized resistance. And that’s what many of Washington’s friends in the region both fear, and expect.

It doesn’t help that the Bush administration has been so shy about calculating the true costs of the coming occupation, or that the civilians at the Pentagon publicly repudiated the Chief of Staff of the Army’s estimate that hundreds of thousands of troops would be required in Iraq for many years. Fortunately for those who actually do want to be informed, a Council on Foreign Relations task force headed by former under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering and former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger has just done the number crunching for us. And the bottom line is daunting.

“The scale of American resources that will be required could amount to some $20 billion per year for several years,” says the task force’s report, “Iraq: The Day After.” “This figure assumes a deployment of 75,000 troops for post-conflict peace stabilization (at about $16.8 billion annually), as well as funding for humanitarian and reconstruction assistance… If the troop requirements are much larger than 75,000—a genuine possibility—the funding requirement would be much greater.” Indeed, those estimates are very conservative. NATO had to put 50,000 troops into Bosnia to stabilize it in1995, and eight years later there are still 12,000 there. Bosnia’s population is fewer than 5 million.

“Iraq is not a small country,” one spymaster in the region told me the other day. “There are 26 million people. Many are trained, and they have the tools to fight. When the Americans see there is a civil war, I don’t think they will put up with something worse than Vietnam. The first thing they will do is say, ‘We finished our job. Goodbye.’” Who will pick up the pieces? And the cost? The countries that warned this war was a bad idea in the first place? After the first Gulf War, when Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf explained why Saddam wasn’t taken out and Iraq occupied, one of the reasons he gave is that the United States would have had to bear the burden alone. The rest of the coalition would have backed away. That’s already happened in this war, and it hasn’t even begun.

If the United States doesn’t hang in there, at enormous cost and great risk, Iraq’s neighbors will try to defend their clients within the country and carve it up in the process. The Turks already are preparing to roll about 80,000 troops into northern Iraq to keep the Kurds from declaring independence and to protect the Turkmen minority. That could lead to a face-off with Iran, not to mention revolt by the Kurds. If Iran gets aggressive, the Saudis will feel threatened. Very quickly, the chaos could spread north, south, east and west, with American troops in the middle, or the Middle East in utter chaos-or both.

The good news is that Saddam will be gone, and the weapons of mass destruction he had will have been eliminated … except, perhaps, for those spirited away in the chaos by the private entrepreneurs of terror. After the shock and awe, the sweets and flowers, the anarchy and atrocity, Iraq could well be called “disarmed and dangerous.”

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.