Iraq has suffered a catastrophe of major proportions. After two disastrous wars and a decade of sanctions, the people of that country are increasingly impoverished, and society is disintegrating. The traditional middle class is being replaced by a new class that gains its livelihood from sanctions busting. The situation is urgent and has long-term implications for the region and beyond.
The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, a ruthless leader in the Stalinist mode who is prepared to sacrifice his own population and the fate of the country in order to sustain himself in power, has created a crisis of conscience for the international community. His megalomania and utter disregard for even the most elementary civil, political and human rights has nullified the classic international instruments of pressure and influence. His stubborn refusal to bargain or yield except under the threat of imminent military destruction has left the international community with an unpalatable choice: should it maintain the limited- and possibly futile - leverage of sanctions, at enormous cost to the Iraqi population; or should it lift the sanctions, at the risk that the leadership in Baghdad will use the additional revenues for military rather than humanitarian purposes? The third alternative - invasion and forcible overthrow - is not credible unless Saddam once again launches an attack on his neighbors.
With no apparent resolution of the policy debate in sight, this seems to be an appropriate moment to step back from the immediate policy dilemmas and to take a longer view of the Iraqi predicament. Is Iraq's plight due to a single atrocious regime, or is it a function of historical circumstance? Once Saddam Hussein is gone, is there a prospect for a return to a more normal existence - whatever that may be - or can we expect more of the same from a successor tyrant? What role can regional and extra-regional powers play to encourage the eventual peaceful integration of Iraq into the region and the international system? At a time of leadership transition and changing alignments among Middle Eastern states, what role will Iraq play in the future?
Those questions constituted the framework for an international conference on "The Future of Iraq" that was held in Cyprus on July 15-17, 2000. Some 33 individuals from 12 different countries participated in the meeting, about one-third of whom were native Iraq is at present living outside their home country. The meeting was an effort, in an academic setting, to review the historical record and to explore new thinking about how the international community should consider dealing with Iraq in the future. The meeting was organized by the Gulf/2000 Project of Columbia University in New York together with the Centre for World Dialogue in Cyprus, headed respectively by myself and Hossein Alikhani. This was the eighth conference organized by Gulf/2000 to examine political, economic and security issues in the Persian Gulf region. Like other Gulf/2000 conferences, this meeting emphasized dialogue among experts and observers from the region, with only a few outside specialists. For more information about Gulf/2000, visit its website at: http:// gulf2000.columbia.edu/; the Centre for World Dialogue can be reached via email at: email@example.com
Many of the papers and commentaries from the conference are presented in the following pages. The papers speak for themselves and will not be summarized here. There were, however, a number of insights that emerged from the three days of discussion that deserve to be singled out.
- Despite the erosion of Iraqi society, widely expressed fears of a breakup of the country into separate Kurdish, Shia and Sunni entities appeared to be greatly exaggerated. Such concerns can be minimized if regional states and the international community continue to reaffirm their support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq and to avoid any temptation to be drawn into sectarian or territorial conflict in the country. This would also help to allay the Iraqi government's deep sense of insecurity.
- Will Iraq's vast oil reserves eventually force the world to cooperate with the present government? In the near term, Iraq has the potential to be one of the largest regional exporters, and also badly needs the revenue. Yet an increase in Iraqi production will hold important implications for other producers with different goals such as Saudi Arabia, which has acted to moderate price increases. The role Iraq will play in oil production and supply in the future is uncertain, if only because the future direction of the market is uncertain, but it will be important.
- A great deal of discussion in the meeting was devoted to the question of sanctions. Many of the conference participants severely criticized the sanctions and particularly the United States for its continued support of them, stressing the disastrous effects on the people of Iraq. The oil-for-food program seems to have halted the increase in infant mortality, but it may not be sufficient to reverse previous effects.
- Although the sanctions regime imposed by the United Nations has greatly weakened Iraq and its ability to threaten its neighbors, it has not succeeded in its unspoken objective of undermining the rule of Saddam Hussein. In fact, Saddam Hussein has been able to use the sanctions to consolidate his personal power, to enrich himself and his key associates, and to maintain a propaganda campaign portraying himself as the champion of those who wish to defy the West, and especially the United States as the sole remaining superpower.
- Others argued that primary responsibility for the present predicament should be directed at the Iraqi leadership, which led the country into two futile and devastating wars and which has refused to cooperate with the United Nations in procuring and delivering humanitarian relief to the Iraqi people. It was noted that relief programs work much better in the Kurdish north than in the areas under direct Iraqi control. U.N. Resolution 1284 was identified as a possible model for the conditional lifting of the sanctions, although Iraq has thus far rejected it. The call for suspension (rather than lifting) of sanctions in Resolution 1284 was identified as a major point of contention.
- This debate was not resolved, but most participants felt that the sanctions were not working as intended. Many participants believed that the international community could not evade its responsibilities to the people of Iraq, even if the Iraqi government, at the highest levels, was willing to treat its own citizens as hostages in a cruel and cynical effort to preserve itself in power. A proposal by Human Rights Watch for the conditional lifting of most sanctions was well received. This paper is available on the Human Rights Watch website at: http://pantheon.hrw.org/legacy/press/2000/01/iraq-memo.htm
- Many participants urged that the United States make greater efforts to consult with regional states, as well as U.N. Security Council members, when shaping its policy toward Iraq. For example, perhaps "smart sanctions" can be devised. A unilateral policy only invites failure.
- The international community should continue to press for inspection and monitoring of Iraq's efforts to rebuild its military capability and weapons of mass destruction and for the enforcement of all relevant resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. Consideration might be given to establishing "red lines" to define the limits of Iraqi military activities and to provide some measure of deterrence and confidence to Iraq's neighbors.
- The issue of whether to provide incentives for better Iraqi behavior - carrots as well as sticks - should be explored. The operation of the U.N. Sanctions Committee should be more transparent and restrictions on more imports should be eased.
- At the same time, there was considerable discussion of suggestions that the international community should devote more of its attention to the human rights dimension of the Iraqi situation, especially by establishing human rights monitors - preferably inside Iraq but at a minimum in neighboring countries- and by publicizing more vigorously past and continuing human rights abuses.
- If most non-military sanctions were lifted, special attention should be paid to education and other areas affecting the youth of the country. There is a real and urgent need to address these issues, since there is the imminent risk that an entire generation of Iraqi youth will be permanently harmed, with unpredictable and dangerous implications for the future of the country and the entire region. Civil society is badly in need of strengthening.
- There was little optimism that conditions in Iraq would improve significantly so long as Saddam Hussein's rule continued. Iraq is a brittle regime, heavily dependent on one man, and change could occur suddenly and unpredictably. However, many doubted that the existing opposition forces - whether inside or outside Iraq - were sufficiently strong or united to constitute an immediate threat to the regime, even with the outspoken support and the relatively modest financial assistance and organizational encouragement of the United States.
- Several governments and non-governmental organizations are pressing for an international tribunal to document and punish the leaders of Iraq who have engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity, including issuing international warrants for their arrest. Some steps could be taken now to delegitimize the government, such as imposing travel restrictions on top Iraqi officials.
- Can Iraq's neighbors, opposition forces and the international community spell out more clearly what steps they would be prepared to take in the event of a change of regime in Iraq? Specifically, the credibility of opposition groups may rely on their ability to develop a united view on the shape of a successor government and to clarify the issues where they disagree with the present Iraqi leadership.
- Although many Arab states - and many participants in this conference - were uncomfortable with any discussion of a successor regime in Iraq as an unwarranted interference in Iraq's internal affairs, there was considerable discussion of the desirability for Iraq's creditors to indicate in advance their willingness to declare a moratorium on debt and reparations in the event an alternative government should emerge. Iraqi development is a key issue that must be addressed in a post-sanctions period.
- There were suggestions of a multi-state conference on Iraq and consideration of a regional code of conduct.
The short-term prospects for any resolution of the Iraqi dilemma are not promising and revolve primarily around the possibility of a deus ex machina, most recently in the form of rumors that Saddam Hussein is dying of lymphatic cancer. It is hoped that the papers from the Cyprus conference, by taking a longer historical perspective, will encourage regional and extra-regional powers to consider pragmatic steps to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people and to plan for a future that will once again see Iraq integrated into the region as a constructive participant, at last fulfilling its immense political and economic promise.