Santa Clara University

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The consequences of preemptive war in Iraq: stability or chaos in the Middle East?

By William James Stover

It’s been more than two years since the United States military deposed the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein in a preemptive war. Security and economic assistance have flowed into the new Iraq, citizens have elected a national assembly, and negotiations over a future constitutional government have been vigorously pursued in the midst of a persistent and increasingly violent insurgency.

Where is this leading? Are we progressing toward greater stability in Iraq and the broader Middle East, or is the region headed for even more chaos?

Let’s begin by defining these two terms. By chaos, I mean continued violence and instability within

William James Stover
William James Stover is an associate professor in the SCU Department of Political Science
and between Middle Eastern countries as well as terrorism in the United States, Europe, and Israel, a country with which we have a very special relationship. This would produce even higher oil prices, rising interest rates, and inflation. It would also decrease our ability to manage security problems in other parts of the world due to our decreased military and economic resources as well as public exhaustion with the war.

Stability is more than the absence of chaos. It would require peace with justice in the region so that some of the terrorists’ motivation and recruiting ability would be curtailed. It would include economic development, the creation of democratic institutions, a commitment to human rights and law, and public support both for domestic regimes and the regional international political system.

Iraq’s future will play an important role in determining whether chaos or stability will prevail. Let’s consider several possible scenarios.

The first might be an American success. Iraq becomes a democratic republic, a cohesive country with a central government committed to human rights and the rule of law. It would probably consist of three regional administrative areas: one in the north (Kurdistan), a second in the south for the Shia Muslims, and a third in the in the so-called Sunni Triangle.

To get there, Iraq would need a viable constitution; an election to approve it; and another election to install Iraq’s first constitutional government. Along the way, Iraq must develop security forces—both military and police—a judicial system, and economic development that provides basic services like water and electricity, and favors indigenous Iraqi companies over multinational corporations. The newly emerging government would also have to settle land disputes, particularly in Kirkuk where Kurds seek to place that city with its vast oil resources under Kurdish control. Regional borders between the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish areas would also need to be delineated.

This is a lot to ask a country that has suffered ethnic and religious conflict and has little experience with democracy. In fact, the border issues and the fate of Kirkuk could lead to further violence instead of integration and national cohesion. Moreover, if security forces become too strong too quickly, it could lead to military interference in politics and a potential coup d’etat.

Another alternative might be a civil war in Iraq with the country breaking up into three separate states. In the north, Turkey may be tempted to intervene to prevent Kurdish independence, and this could involve Iran and Syria, states with sizeable Kurdish minorities. In the south, a Shia state might seek support from Iran whose population is also Shia. The Sunnis in the central part of the country might join the fray, probably using guerrilla warfare and terrorism to assert their interests.

These developments could risk wider war with civil strife becoming an international conflict involving Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, possibly Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and NATO.

What do you think that would do to the price of oil and the export of terrorism to Europe and North America?

If Iraq succeeds in establishing a stable, cohesive, and democratic republic with a commitment to human rights and international law, it would have the potential to become a powerful state in the region. It has oil, water, and a very talented population. How long would it take Iraq to turn its attention to what its people consider an unjust and illegal conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?

Without a solution to this problem that Arabs and Muslims consider fair and just, Iraq could not be a peace-partner to Israel, nor could it accept the United States’ support for Israeli policy in the West Bank.

I find none of these likely scenarios moving in the direction of peace, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Our preemptive war will present us with continued chaos rather than stability in the region, good reason for the United States to have avoided such armed involvement in the Middle East.

William James Stover is an associate professor in the SCU Department of Political Science.

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