MOSCOW — A homeowner’s golden rule is buy or build — but never rebuild. The costs of adding a closet to your kitchen almost equals your mortgage; additional insulation ruins your budget; a new bedroom kills your credit.

It is even worse in the case of foreign countries. Unsure of whether to go to war with Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush is even less certain about what he would do after such a conflict took place.

Let’s presume that the strength of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime is exaggerated by antiwar critics and that it is toppled in a matter of days. Let’s also presume that all his local supporters — and we are talking about thousands of people if not more — are neutralized. Now we are left with a big, angry and needy country that the international community — or at least the United States — promises to rebuild.

There are usually only two such examples normally cited of an occupying force transforming a defeated nation: Germany and Japan after World War II. However, there are countless examples of when such efforts failed.

No matter what invading soldiers may think, they are seldom viewed as competent social engineers. Victors, yes; liberators, maybe. Reformers? Lawmakers? Trendsetters? Rarely. That means that a conquered nation will not be very willing to collaborate. Forget about puppet governments and/or pure-hearted idealists. We are talking bureaucracy — and yes, the people.

Success or failure in part depends on what must be changed. In the case of Germany after World War II, there was not much to do. For Germany, Nazism had been a huge aberration. Germany once was part of the European enlightenment. It received a parliamentary system fairly early and was fairly tolerant politically. Marxism and Prussian militarism, Stalinist communism and social democracy coexisted there — if not entirely peacefully, then within the limits of law and civil rights.

Before the coming of Nazism, the German economy had not differed much from the economy of any other western European nation, and even Adolf Hitler, having reinforced the role of state and state planning (after all, he called himself a socialist) could not entirely change its free-market nature.

Another factor is the educational level of the nation that is to be reformed. No matter how great or practical the victor’s ideas might be, they stand a slim chance of being accepted in a nation that can barely read and where the mass media is limited.

Finally, what the rest of the world, and particularly neighbors, think about the ambitious plans is also very important. Again, Germany had no choice. In 1945, the whole of Europe was so violently anti-Nazi that it was clear to the Germans that they had to make an effort.

The situation with Iraq is very different. Many its neighbors regard all foreign intervention in Iraq with suspicion if not with outright indignation. Hussein has taken care of the Iraqi intellectuals. Although you cannot kill free spirits, you can kill knowledge and the habit of analytical thinking. That is not to say that Iraq does not have intellectually brilliant people; undoubtedly it does, but their number hardly makes them an influential group.

And then there is the issue of what has to be changed. Has one ever heard of a democratic Islamic nation? Maybe Turkey qualifies, but definitely with reservations (check the Turkish Army’s record in Kurdish areas).

Of course, the absence of democracy in the Islamic world is not a matter of religion. It is a matter of extremely conservative, inflexible social structures and, as a result of that, inflexible human minds. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden hardly exemplifies the spirit of the Quran, but he definitely has roots in a medieval conservatism that does not tolerate cultural challenges and social diversity.

The Soviet Union spent the better half of the 20th century rebuilding Islamic nations. True, neither Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev nor any of their successors could have cared less about democracy when they started transforming Central Asian nations such as Turkmenistan, Kazakstan and Afghanistan. Yet, objectively, the societies they were suggesting were still better for the local peoples than the medieval models they had.

What is better for a woman? To be able to build a career as a professional or to spend all her adult life indoors taking care of the males in the family? What is better for any person? To have a college in his or her hometown or not? What about hospitals and everything associated with science? And so on and so forth.

We all know what happened in Afghanistan after the Soviet occupiers withdrew: The Taliban arrived with its ultra-conservative version of Islam. The situation in former Soviet republics of Central Asia such as Turkmenistan is different: Islam is barely tolerated there by the local governments, yet the local governments themselves are not much better than the Taliban. All right, only the president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurad Niyazov, has gone as far as to name days of the week after his mother, but all other leaders of the Central Asian countries are also involved in silencing the opposition, curtailing freedoms and confining culture. Basically they are building medieval kingdoms whose only connection to the outside world would be oil and gas pipelines.

If U.S. soldiers storm Baghdad, they are in for a tough ride. But so are American social engineers — if and when they arrive in Hussein’s gloomy realm.

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