Looking on the Bright Side
The potential benefits of a war in Iraq
January 26, 2003
By Fareed Zakaria
Yesterday, a discussion on the meaning of love turned -- as did every discussion at Davos this year -- to one subject, America and Iraq. Most European and Middle Eastern participants at the conference think a war with Iraq would be a disaster. You've heard the case. The war could go badly. Saddam could set fire to his oilfields, sending oil prices soaring. War could provoke a major terrorist attack, by Saddam or others. Muslim sentiment around the world could get inflamed. If Iraq implodes, the region could get destabilized.
These are all legitimate concerns. The risks are real. But so are the potential benefits. Consider for a moment the possible results of a successful war in Iraq:
- A major producer of weapons of mass destruction would be eliminated. Since there are very few states that have set out to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, taking one off the list is a big step toward safety. Other would-be weapons producers will likely think twice before going down a similar path.
- The Iraqi people would gain liberty. No matter what comes after Saddam, it will be better than his totalitarian regime. For the majority of Iraqis -- who are Kurds, Shiites and Turkmens -- as well as for most Sunnis, it will be the end of a nightmare of repression.
- The Iraqi people would get on the road to economic well being. The current policy of containment has the awful side- effect of starving millions of Iraqis. The United Nations tried to design its sanctions to prevent this, but thanks to Saddam's subterfuge, the oil-for-food program has become the oil-for-palaces program. With the end of the regime will come the end of sanctions. It would also end a military machine that has swallowed most of Iraq's money.
- Political and economic reform would quicken around the Arab world. Just as Japan's economic success after World War II became a powerful model that other countries in East Asia emulated, even moderate success in Iraq could embolden reformers in the region.
- The cause of radical, violent anti-Westernism -- the one ideological trait that is shared by both Saddam and the Islamic fundamentalists -- would be dealt a severe blow. Osama bin Laden once said that when people see a weak horse and a strong horse, they naturally want to side with the strong horse. No one will want to side with a dead horse.
- The oil cartel would break down. An Iraq that is market-friendly and needs to pump out oil to meet its reconstruction costs may not join OPEC. Or it may refuse to keep to OPEC's quotas. Either way, it would mean the end of the oil cartel since three of the world's largest oil-producing states -- Russia and Norway being the others-- would not engage in price fixing.
- If oil prices stay low, over time the pressures for reform could build even more. The regimes of the Middle East--most of which are nondemocratic and nonperforming -- will find it increasingly difficult to stay in power if they don't open up. In short, if oil goes to $10 a barrel, the Saudi monarchy goes to Majorca.
- As regimes in the Middle East begin performing better and allow their people greater freedoms, people will give voice to their frustrations and ambitions through regular economic and political means -- not radicalism and terror. This is not as farfetched as it might sound. Radical communism -- which seemed a potent threat in the late 1940s and 1950s in Europe and East Asia--lost its appeal as those countries achieved stability, political freedom and economic vitality.
Not all of this will happen. In fact, most of it will probably not happen. But not all of the bad things people predict will likely happen, either. And even if a few of the forces described above are unleashed, they will have lasting positive effects on the region and the whole Muslim world.
Of course, not everyone would be helped by a successful war. The ruling elites in the Middle East -- particularly those that remain stubbornly set in their old ways -- will be challenged, threatened and eventually overturned. For these potentates and their courtiers it would mean the end of one of the richest gravy trains in history. That is why they will fight change as fiercely as they can. But for the people of the Middle East, after the shock of the war fades, it could mean a chance to break out of the terrible stagnancy in which they now sit.
There are always risks involved when things change. But for the past 40 years the fear of these risks has paralyzed Western policy toward the Middle East. And what has come of this caution? Repression, radical Islam and terror. I'll take my chances with change.
Fareed Zakaria Newsweek
war in iraq