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Iraq: A Thought Experiment

1 August 2004

Iraq: A Thought Experiment

By Gwynne Dyer

Let us conduct a little thought experiment. The year 2014 will arrive in only ten years’ time, and the US occupation of Iraq will be long over by then. Let’s imagine that Iraq does not break up in the civil war that the US government keeps telling us is the only alternative to a continued American military presence. What is the best-case outcome for Iraq a decade from now?

Iraq was the most developed of the bigger Arab countries before Saddam Hussein dragged it into the war with Iran in 1980, and it could easily recover that status given just one decade of good luck and good management. Only three things have to happen right. One, the occupation ends quickly. Two, the country does not tear itself apart in an orgy of ethnic and religious violence. Three, the cash flow turns positive.

The occupation will end relatively soon — maybe as soon as next year, but certainly before the next US presidential election in 2008 — because the American public simply won’t stand for the cost and the casualties. Neither President George W. Bush nor Democratic challenger John Kerry will talk about a US pull-out now, but the flimsy link that Mr Bush made between the ‘war on terror’ and the invasion of Iraq was destroyed by the report of the 9/11 Commission. When the going gets really rough for the US in Iraq, that will be what tips the scale.

One year or four years from now matters a lot in terms of what the international scene looks like by 2014 — we could be back in a global confrontation between rival alliances if Iraq goes on too long — but strangely, it matters less in terms of Iraq itself. Either the country breaks up when the US pulls out, or it does not. Whenever it happens, the choice for Iraqi Kurds, Arabs and Turcomans, for Sunnis, Shias and Christians, will be to bury their rivalries and prosper together, or to live apart in misery.

Choose wrongly, and Iraq ends up as a super-Lebanon, immersed in a civil war of all against all at ten times the scale of the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war. But Iraqis have always avoided civil war in the past, though sometimes at the price of tyranny.

The Baathist regime that came to power in the 1960s was a horror politically, but it knew how to use its oil wealth. The country was the second-largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia, and on the eve of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 its GDP was about $200 billion in today’s dollars.

That provided for free education for everybody (including university, if you qualified), a growing middle class, a diversified economy that did not depend solely on oil, and the most liberated female population in the whole Arab world. Saddam Hussein was not yet at war, so Iraq’s abundant natural and human resources produced the prosperity you would expect.

Then came the criminally foolish invasion of Iran, and an eight-year war that should have spelled the end of Saddam Hussein — but did not, mainly because the Reagan administration decided that saving Saddam was a lesser evil than letting Iran win. US support for Saddam ended with his invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War of 1991, but Iraq had to endure twelve years of United Nations sanctions before he was finally overthrown in the US invasion of 1993.

By now, after almost a year and a half of further damage from looting, foreign occupation and guerrilla war, the Iraqi economy is about a quarter of what it was in 1980. But the natural resources and the people are the same as they always were.

Countries with deep ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions THAT CAN SEE THE PROMISE OF PROSPERITY AS THE REWARD FOR COOPERATION can often surprise the pundits by burying their rivalries and pulling together. Think of Malaysia, of South Africa, of India. The Iraqis could confound the pessimists and do the same — and then, provided they sorted the cash flow issues, they could be seeing prosperity again by 2014.

Iraq’s foreign debt, largely incurred during the war with Iran, now amounts to about $120 billion, which is a crippling burden. If the debt could be written down to one-third of its present amount, then Iraq would have a chance. If Iraqi oil exports could be boosted to 7 or 8 million barrels a day, which could be achieved with five years of serious investment, and if oil prices stay high (which seems practically guaranteed), then it would have a very good chance.

Would this newly prosperous and powerful Iraq be a democracy of sorts? Maybe, though it would be more likely to resemble Malaysia than South Africa. But it could just as easily be a regime that resembles the old Baathist secular dictatorship or the theocratic tyranny of neighbouring Iran: neither prosperity nor power are necessarily linked to democracy.

Would any members of the US-appointed ‘sovereign government’ of Iraq still be in power? Quite possibly: politicians are born acrobats. But they won’t be talking much about their past: any Iraq that has really recovered its independence will see the US invasion as a national humiliation and regard America as its enemy for at least a generation to come. Even if the Bush administration’s motives for invading Iraq were pure and selfless, it would still be the same. Ingratitude is not just the norm in politics. It is an iron law.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“Iraq…positive”; and”Would…democracy”)