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Executive Summary #1632 on Iraq

March 7, 2003

March 7, 2003 | Executive Summary on Iraq

Executive Summary: Forging a Durable Post-War Political Settlement in Iraq

Iraq's failure to comply with its disarmament obligations under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 is likely to trigger a war, with or without the passage of another Security Council resolution. The immediate goal of such a war would be to eliminate the grave threat posed by Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but another major benefit will be the end of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. In the aftermath of such a campaign, the United States should help the Iraqi people establish a new federal system of governance that provides representation for all the people of Iraq and poses no threat to America's national interests, its allies, or stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region.

Under no circumstances should the United States advocate the kind of top-down, highly centralized "nation-building" experiments that the Clinton Administration tried unsuccessfully in Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo, and Bosnia. That approach failed in those cases precisely because it ignored the unique political realities on the ground. To be effective, a new post-war Iraqi government must be pluralist, one that includes the three major sub-national groups in Iraq and advances their interests. A decentralized federal political system offers the best means of assuring local autonomy, protection against the return of a tyrannical central government, a fair political settlement in Iraq, and an equitable disbursement of Iraq's oil and tax revenues.

A good political model for such a successful post-war Iraqi federation already exists--the so-called Great Compromise of 1787 that enabled the creation of America's constitutional arrangement among the states. In Iraq's case, this type of system would give each of the country's three major sub-groups equal representation in an upper house of the legislature in order to protect each group's interests at the national level.

The United States must implement a clear political strategy for post-Saddam Iraq. It should stress that while the specific details of the ultimate political settlement will be determined by the Iraqi people, Washington will first lay out the broad
contours of an acceptable accord for the post-war government. Iraq's post-war government must:

  • Pose no threat to the U.S. or its neighbors;
  • Cooperate in the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles in accordance with U.N. resolutions; and
  • Build an inclusive, broad-based ruling coalition that is sensitive to the interests of all the country's ethnic and religious groups, especially the interests of its three major groups: the Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds.

Ideally, the post-Saddam Iraq will be one that espouses democratic and free-market principles, that is pro-Western and that cooperates extensively in the war against terrorism, and that supports a negotiated solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, measuring the success of U.S. policy in Iraq should be defined not by these highly ambitious goals, but by how well the three more realistic and more important war aims are achieved. Specifically, to help the Iraqi people build a stable, friendly, and non-threatening state, the Administration should:

  • Strengthen and help unify Iraq's political opposition. Iraq's long-suffering opposition movements, neglected by Washington in both prior Administrations, could play a helpful role not only in removing Saddam Hussein's regime from power, but also in forming part of the foundation for a stable post-Saddam government. The Administration should provide immediate enhanced economic aid, logistical assistance, organizational training, and technical advice to the widest possible variety of Iraqi opposition groups.
  • Work with the Iraqi opposition to encourage defections from Saddam's regime. The Administration should coordinate efforts to establish contacts with members of the Iraqi government and persuade them to defect once the war starts. In particular, the U.S. and various opposition groups should encourage officers in Iraq's regular armed forces to defect en masse at the outset of a war by assuring them that they would not be massacred by the opposition in revenge for Saddam's war crimes against his people.
  • Purge Iraq of Saddam's Ba'athist regime. After Saddam Hussein is ousted, his supporters in the security services, the Republican Guard, the government bureaucracies, and his radical pan-Arab socialist Ba'ath Party will continue to pose a long-term threat to the survival of a post-Saddam government. The United States should work with a post-war government to cleanse Iraq of Saddam's lieutenants, both in his regime and in the Ba'ath Party.
  • Help Iraqis build a loose federation. The Administration should persuade the leaders of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds that a federal political system is the best means of assuring local autonomy, protecting against the return of a tyrannical central government, and assuring them an equitable share in the disbursement of Iraq's oil and tax revenues. A decentralized federal system would best fit the political realities on the ground and meet the needs of Iraq's people.

It will be up to the Iraqis themselves to establish a state after Saddam Hussein's regime falls and its weapons of mass destruction are destroyed. They must build a new state that will protect and represent all the people of Iraq, that will not threaten U.S. interests or regional stability, and that ensures international stability to the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

In Iraq, the facts on the ground mean that the United States should push for the formation of a decentralized federal government, which would stand the best chance of ensuring stability and long-term peace. But it is ultimately up to the Iraqis themselves to flesh out the details of that political settlement. The United States should facilitate a positive outcome, suggest a course of action, and encourage the political and regional elites to reach agreement to put in place a political system that gives the various ethnic and religious groups a real stake in its success.

John C. Hulsman, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in European Affairs, and James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Affairs, in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. This paper is updated from Backgrounder No. 1593, published on September 24, 2002.

About the Author

John Hulsman Senior Research Fellow

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy