The Bush administration seems determined to take military action against the Iraqi end of the "axis of evil." It's clear enough that we can win the upcoming battle, but if recent events in Afghanistan are any indicator, our prospects for winning the peace thereafter are cloudy.
The report that the aviation minister of Afghanistan was murdered at Kabul airport was disturbing enough, but then came the accusation from Afghan leader Hamid Karzai that the culprits were fellow senior officials in the government. "The best case is that Karzai more or less rules Kabul," says Doug Bandow, a foreign policy analyst for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "The rest of the country belongs to the warlords."
Bandow, who recently returned from Pakistan, says, "People see the issue as Christian vs. Muslim, with the U.S. targeting Islam." That's a feeling among not only Pakistanis, he observes, but also among many Afghans. He and fellow visiting Americans were literally chased by an angry crowd of Afghan refugees at a camp in Peshawar.
So where does that leave our national interest? Noting incidents in which foreign peacekeepers have been fired upon, as well as a continued al-Qaida presence, Bandow concludes, "Chances for Western-style democracy are pretty hopeless."
Americans may have easily toppled the Taliban regime, but only constant vigilance -- and quite possibly continued military occupation -- is sure to keep some sort of anti-American faction from recapturing power. Indeed, even the civilized-seeming Karzai was once in the Taliban.
And if nation-building in Afghanistan is stumbling along, what can we expect to accomplish in Iraq? Some war hawks think big. The Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot writes hopefully of "a MacArthur regency" in Baghdad, referring to America's successful democracy-building exercise in Tokyo after 1945.
But is that in the cards for Iraq? Maybe not, if the vehicle for our hopes is the London-based Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmed Chalabi. The United States has been funding this "liberation" force for more than a decade. And what's been liberated? Nothing. The INC doesn't seem to have any support in Iraq.
Two years ago, Gen. Anthony Zinni, then-commander of American operations in the area, mocked the capability of the INC, describing it as a bunch of "silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London." OK, that's one man's opinion. But is Zinni a steady fellow? The Bush Administration seems to think so. In November, the retired Marine was dispatched to the Middle East as a special negotiator to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
And even the strongest supporters of U.S. military action in Iraq don't put much stock in "our" Iraqi. In the Jan. 21 issue of The Weekly Standard, Robert Kagan and William Kristol describe Chalabi and the INC as "essential parts of any solution in Iraq" -- but they warn, "We cannot count on the Iraqi opposition to win this war."
So let's suppose the Pentagon replaces Saddam Hussein with Chalabi & Co. What happens then? Will we encourage the new governors to hold free elections? What will we do if bad guys win?
Meanwhile, the Kurds want independence -- no matter who's running Baghdad. Will Americans help, or hinder, their secession movement? And the Shiite Muslims in the south seem to want a fundamentalist realm of their own. How do Americans feel about that? Indeed, since World War II, America's track record of building and sustaining credible allies in defiance of local opinion is dismal.
From the Nationalist Chinese to the South Vietnamese, from dictators in the Philippines to Nicaragua to Haiti, our well-funded designees seem to be paper tigers among their own people. But Iran, the country next door to Iraq, offers the most ominous parallel. In 1953, the CIA overthrew the left-leaning government of Mohammed Mossadegh, installing the conservative shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. Yet just a quarter-century later, the ayatollahs took over, leaving U.S.-Iranian relations worse than ever.
So is this what we can expect in Iraq -- our chosen friends displaced by our unchosen enemies? There's no way to know. But as the American experience in Afghanistan suggests, we don't know much of anything about Muslim politics. Indeed, about the only thing we can know for sure about Iraq is this: American gains will be secure for only as long as Americans remain.