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A Year and a Half Later

Recent press reports indicate that a National Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush in late July confirms that the worst fears of many skeptics of the president's Iraq policy were well founded. Since serious talk of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began to surface in the early spring of 2002, Iraq experts inside and outside the U.S. government worried that the aftermath of a regime change might in fact exacerbate the risks that regime change was supposed to eliminate.

According to these reports, the estimate details three possible scenarios for the future of Iraq. The most optimistic is "an Iraq whose stability would remain tenuous in political, economic and security terms." The least optimistic would be "civil war." In either case, the ability of the United States to protect its own geopolitical, economic and security interests is in serious doubt and there is a distinct possibility that the territory that Winston Churchill carved out as modern day "Iraq" could become more problematic to U.S. interests than it was when under the control of Saddam.

Under the civil war scenario, large portions of Iraq would remain outside the centralized control of any responsible authority. This type of chaotic environment would provide safe haven to jihadists, terrorists and common criminal organizations of all varieties. Even with a large U.S. military presence over the indefinite future, the territory now contained within the national boundaries of Iraq could replace Afghanistan as a base of operations for al Qaeda and similar organizations. Regional and ethnic strongmen would compete for military and political resources and would doubtlessly build alliances that would have severe implications for the peace and stability of neighboring states including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait and Turkey. The ability to increase Iraq's productive capacity to help meet the needs of a world thirsty for more petroleum would remain in doubt for the indefinite future. Militias, ethnic groups or political movements that were able to seize, operate and export a portion of the nation's oil or gas reserves could use those considerable revenues in ways that could threaten the security of the region and of the United States.

On the other hand, the "more optimistic" scenario of a central government with a "tenuous" hold on stability would be highly vulnerable to the emergence of a new strongman whose strategy to gain and wield power in a country that has become increasingly more hateful toward the West and the United States in particular would be to abandon ties and commitments to the forces that now occupy the country.

A new Iraq under such an individual would continue to have many of the problems, interests and goals of the old Iraq under Saddam. Specifically, it would need to defend a great deal of territory in a very rough part of the world—a part of the world in which rival nations are developing nuclear capabilities. Such a country would not face the economic challenges that Pakistan or India faced in developing nuclear weapons. It also would not face the sanctions and international pariah status that hobbled Saddam in his attempts to buy technology, expertise and raw materials needed for such a weapon. Given the enormous difficulty that previous U.S. presidents have had in keeping French, German, Russian and Third World sources from providing such resources to Saddam, one can only imagine the difficulty that future U.S. presidents will have in denying such materials to a new Iraqi government given the clean slate it will have and the fact the United States will have to warn other nations about the dangers of Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion.

It is doubtful that anyone, including the CIA, can reliably weigh the probability of any of these potential outcomes. But it is clear that the people who understood these risks were not listened to by those who were making the decisions, and that those who made the decisions did not weigh the risks.

Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow