Taking the Long View
Iraq is most likely to see a protracted internal war and economic difficulties for years to come. A mildly optimistic scenario is possible but so are some outcomes that would be destabilizing for the region, unpleasant for Iraq, and detrimental for U.S. interests.
Iraq's difficulties are disappointing to the Iraqi people, who so hoped that the American invasion would at least mean a return to peace after twenty-three years of war and near-war. The violent insurgency now raging is not likely to end any time soon; neither the government nor the insurgents are strong enough to win a decisive victory. Instead, the war is likely to continue for some years, and -- especially if the forces behind the current government prevail -- the fighting is likely to phase down rather than to end abruptly.
The interesting question to ask is what will be the situation five to ten years from now, for that is a time frame long enough that one or the other side could have become strong enough to prevail. It is possible that by then, modest democratic forces will have prevailed. Yet the most likely future is that Iraq will remain a weak and fragile society challenged by an insurgency. However, it is also possible that an Islamist state will emerge. Also, there is always the outside chance Iraq will split apart.
The prospects for Iraq are not particularly attractive. The most likely attainable outcomes would still leave a weak and divided society, not just a fragile government. As a rough rule of thumb, reconstructing a society after a major war takes fully as long as the war did; for instance, Germany's recovery from the six years of war from 1939 to 1945 took until the middle 1950s. Saddam led Iraq into twenty years of war, first against Iran and then against the U.S.-led coalition. It therefore would be optimistic to expect that Iraq could recover for some decades. Moreover, pre-Saddam Iraq was no paradise. It was at best a middle income country with serious tensions among the ethnic communities. Meanwhile, some of Iraq's neighbors -- especially the Arab monarchies and Turkey -- have made great economic, social, and yes, even political advances. Even the regional laggards -- namely, Syria under Assad, father and son, and the Islamic Republic of Iran -- have done remarkably better than Saddam's Iraq. As a result, there is little prospect that for many, many decades to come Iraq will be able to recover the same position relative to its neighbors that it had when Saddam came to power. His rule effectively ruined Iraq's chances for regional leadership for a century.
That is the best case. Much worse cases are quite possible. Most troubling for the international community is the situation in which Iraq becomes once again a source of regional instability, this time due to unrest, terrorism, and communitarian violence spilling over from Iraq onto its neighbors. It is striking how little Iraq's neighbors are doing to counter such a threat. Indeed, Syria and most especially Iran are feeding the flames that may one day engulf them.
The difficult situation in Iraq was almost certainly made worse by errors in the U.S.-led occupation. That said, the fundamental cause of the problems is the social destruction during Saddam's days, which drove Iraqis to seek security in elemental communal structures of sect and ethnic group. Saddam hollowed the government and the other social institutions of the Iraqi middle class. He empowered radicals of many sorts, including in his last decade intolerant Islamists. No matter how his rule ended, Iraq would have been a mess afterwards.
So what should be done? As Clawson inferred, this is more than just a problem of Iraqi stability; the whole region is at stake.
I believe that we are seeing, in a very broad sense, something akin to world politics in the 1920s. There is an obvious need for real reform and much work is required to build a modern society in the Middle East. Yet all the costs-benefit analyses, the real ones, the ones that count, the ones that decisions are being made upon, are too focused on parochial and short term interests, and a willing blindness to the dangers in the foreseeable future. Coordinated international efforts are about as ineffective and lost as the League of Nations was. For all his efforts Wilson could not get America to reject its growing isolationist movement, much less temper European lust. Bush, I fear, is suffering from a similar predicament. But Wilson was too much of an internationalist to force the issue.
If history is much of a guide, and if the Chinese economic dynamo falters, we may be making similar comparisons, ten years hence, to the 1930s. We need to make effective changes now, while we can still afford it.
Real progress in Iraq requires real progress in the whole of the Middle East. To be more than a bit cavalier about it, all we need is one good sheriff.