LONDON — As the military operation in Iraq rolls forward, those who still have doubts about the project — and there are many — have started to focus on all the catastrophes that could lie ahead, however speedy the campaign.
The long catalog of possible disasters includes millions of refugees, Iraq falling apart, Turks and Kurds turning on each other in renewed ferocity, a further destabilized Arab world, more frenzied anti-Americanism and terrorism, world oil-supply disruption, the United Nations undermined, European unity splintered, and the Atlantic Alliance more divided.
Pessimism and caution are probably healthy; it is wise to prepare for the worst. Yet they can be overdone. Alongside all the dangers are also opportunities that should at least be considered when weighing up the whole undertaking.
First, it needs to be noted that the Iraq war, if it can be called a “war” at all, is unlike any other military campaign in history. Perhaps it should be called a green war. The aim is neither conquest, nor destruction, nor defeat of great armies, nor slaughter.
There will be no prisoners of war. On the contrary, Iraqi soldiers are to be given first-class treatment and told simply to go home. Normal civilian life is to be preserved as much as possible. There is to be minimum bombing of bridges, water plants, power stations and the other underpinnings of everyday life.
Commentators who express amazement that the lights are still on after the bombing blitz on Baghdad have missed the plot. The aim is to keep the lights on but turn the oppressive regime off. The revolution in military technology allows this sort of finger-tip selection of targets for the first time. The overworked phrase “surgical strike” has really begun to mean something.
Second, the apparent disarray among the world powers, with insults flying between Paris and Washington, growls from Moscow and Beijing, despair at the U.N. and splits in the European Union, could all be providing just the shakeup the international order needs.
The experience of all the rows over Iraq could at last prompt the realization that the tasks of curbing global terrorism, corralling rogue states and preventing uncontrollable nuclear proliferation stretch years ahead.
The great powers could come swiftly to learn from the present muddle that in the future they have no choice but to find new ways of working together.
The Americans may also have learned that, despite all the brave talk of going it alone, in practice in an interdependent world they must have allies. The Russians could now see that they need friends around them in helping to keep their vast sprawling nation in one piece. The new leadership in Beijing may now perceive that they are going to need an alliance of efforts with Moscow, Washington and Tokyo if they are to deal with the North Korean snake pit on their doorstep.
All this will put irresistible pressure on the U.N. to do what it should have done years ago — namely to abandon its time-warped 1945 structure and redesign itself to fit modern global conditions.
The EU likewise needs to be jerked out of its Cold War, Franco-centric mold and rebalanced to suit the network age.
Third, the Arab world, too, has at last received the jolt it needs to engineer change. Arab passions may have been initially inflamed by the Iraq operation, but the crisis has already given the Israel-Palestine peace process a sharp boost, and with British prompting, the U.S. may at last be ready to put serious pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to curb Israeli settlements, and on the Palestinians to stop suicide massacres — which were largely financed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from Baghdad.
Fourth, while a few Iraqi oil wells may be damaged, the prospect is of more oil, not less, and cheaper oil as well. In the longer term, this could ease Saudi Arabia’s burden of being the so-called “swing producer” — a role that it detests. The price of oil could ease (it is already doing so), thus providing a useful counterweight to oncoming world recession.
Increased military expenditure all around the world, plus the enormous sums required for the rehabilitation of Iraq, should also help to check recession and aid world economic recovery.
Fifth, a democratic Iraq could follow the path of its increasingly lively democratic Turkish neighbor and, working together, address the Kurdish problem with respect and sensitivity, instead of with bullying force.
Finally, a benign Iraq — emerging as an advanced Arab nation of huge potential wealth — could transform the mood in the whole Middle East. From being the poisonous source of hatred and tension during recent years, it could turn right around and radiate prosperity, peace and dignified Arab reform throughout the region.
All too optimistic? Perhaps. But also a reminder that, as with medical surgery, an operation that is dreaded and has been constantly postponed can give someone a new life when it is finally faced and carried through.
War, like all operations, is dangerous and can go wrong. But the high probability is that this one will go right. While the prophets of gloom are free to list all their fears, optimism is also needed in the balance, if only to set some positive goals of what could be achieved in the way of real progress toward a safer, more stable and less fear-ridden world.
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