Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 20, 2003

The War May Have Ended, but the Story in Iraq Is Just Beginning

Steve Lopez

The price of trying to change the world at gunpoint and alienating allies in the process won't be known for years, no matter how desperate you or I might be for a quick and tidy resolution of differences that were hundreds of years in the making.  In the Middle East, they're still worked into a lather about the Crusades. Democracy will not sprout like desert flowers either this spring or next.



When American soldiers first entered Baghdad to cheers from Iraqi citizens, some readers demanded to know when I was going to come clean as an antiwar loudmouth who'd gotten it all wrong.

I don't know if it's lead poisoning, 50 years of sitcoms or too much sun, but the republic is awash with fickle fellows. All it takes is a couple of upbeat scenes on CNN and everyone's giving thumbs up to pollsters, who seem to be taking a new poll roughly every 10 minutes.

How do you think the war is going?

How about now?

How about now?

How about now?

Well sure, it seems to have gone reasonably well, considering that there could have been more death and destruction. Lost a few of the most valuable museum pieces known to the world, but the oil fields were quickly secured and are now safely under American guard.

Whether you supported the war or not, it was moving to see Iraqi citizens so gleeful at the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a man so many of them feared and loathed. American soldiers who risked and gave their lives, and continue to do so, deserve credit for getting it done, and so does President Bush.

But the price of trying to change the world at gunpoint and alienating allies in the process won't be known for years, no matter how desperate you or I might be for a quick and tidy resolution of differences that were hundreds of years in the making.

In the Middle East, they're still worked into a lather about the Crusades. Democracy will not sprout like desert flowers either this spring or next.

As I wrote before the war:

"The hard part comes in a couple of weeks. That's when some dust-covered commander will be standing in the middle of the world's largest sand trap, looking at 25 million Iraqis and wondering, 'OK, now what?' "

Last week, I checked in with two men I wrote about before the war -- one who supported it, and one who didn't. U.S. Rep. Howard Berman of Los Angeles (he was for) and USC professor Richard Dekmejian (against) each agreed it's way too soon to fill out a scorecard.

Berman, a Democrat, said that, in a closed-door briefing, he told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld:

"So far, so good."

Berman was inspired by the sight of those Iraqis who looked upon American soldiers as liberators.

"Part of me believes fundamentally that it's a human desire to be able to participate in your own governance," he said.

But Berman thinks "we will have to unveil and prove to ourselves and to the world" that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Good point. If you're going to declare that Hussein is a despot who poses an imminent threat to the entire world, and then you crush his regime with barely a whimper and find nothing more frightening than a lot of really bad furniture in his palace, it doesn't do much for your credibility.

Despite his reservations about the war, even professor Dekmejian believes Hussein hid the weapons, and so do I.

"I'd be very surprised if we can't find something," said Dekmejian.

For Berman, weapons were only one reason for this war. Here's another:

"To help the Arab people economically and empower them politically ... and rescue us from the course we're on, which is decade after decade of swamps breeding terrorists who are determined to go after us and all symbols of the West."

But accomplishing that will take years, as Berman advised Bush before the war. And yet the Bush administration is talking about pulling out within months.

Is he serious? Berman thinks not. He believes the president just wants to avoid charges that he's trying to turn Iraq into an American colony. Some Iraqis are already screaming for the U.S. to get out.

These are the kinds of dilemmas we've created for ourselves.

You've got to stay long enough, but not too long.

You've got to make it look like you're spreading democracy, but not influence.

And you've got to convince the American public that, while public agencies go begging and the economy slogs along, it makes sense to pour billions of U.S. tax dollars into Iraq.

"It's a minefield," says Dekmejian, who expects a surge in terrorism from those who oppose the commandeering of an Arab country by the United States.

And if democracy is the goal in Iraq, how do you find the right balance between openness and the control necessary to keep various factions from exercising a burning, age-old desire to kill each other?

Not an easy question to answer, which is why it never pops up in polls gauging the war's popularity.

"It has to be done gradually and carefully," says Dekmejian, "or what we may end up doing is leaving behind another oriental despotism with a democratic veneer, ruled by a man on horseback who's paid by the Pentagon. It's a model that goes back through the 20th century in all kinds of places."

In other words, stay tuned. This is not the end of the story in Iraq; it's the beginning.