In 1991, fears about the disintegration of Iraq were a prime impulse behind the decision to bring the first Gulf war to an end before Saddam Hussein was deposed. The reasoning was apparently that a defeated and weakened Saddam would be easier to contain than an unknown successor, particularly a regime run by pro-Iranian Shiites; that only a firm hand could safely steer Iraq’s volatile political system; and that Saddam, for all his undeniable faults, was the most qualified person to offer such a hand.

In recent months, the same logic has cropped up in arguments opposing U.S. intervention in Iraq. As the point was summarized in a late-February news story in the New York Times, “If [Saddam] does leave, the outcome may be messy, unpredictable, and very violent as old scores, suppressed by the governing Baath party for more than three decades, are settled.” This messy outcome, moreover, has been said to pose an immovable obstacle to the dreams of a democratic Iraq with which the Bush administration has beguiled itself and the American people. “Could a democratic leader,” the same Times report went on, “emerge in this deeply divided nation, which many Iraqis themselves believe requires a strong, even autocratic, leader to stay united?”

There is something to be said for this line of questioning. To it may be added the protracted legacy of political violence that has plagued Iraq since its inception as a state in 1921 and that, long before Saddam Hussein perfected his own spectacularly vicious system of enforcement, was the evidently accepted method of maintaining political order in that country. Thus, in the summer of 1933, when the tiny Assyrian community in northern Iraq demanded ethnic and religious recognition, it was subjected to large-scale massacres by the Iraqi army that were lauded by the masses as an act of national heroism. And when, in July 1958, the Hashemite dynasty was overthrown by a military coup, the mutilated body of the Iraqi regent Abdel Ilah was dragged by a raging mob through the streets of Baghdad before being hanged at the gate of the ministry of defense. Four years later, the bullet-ridden corpse of the leader of that coup, General Abdel Karim Qassem, was displayed on Iraqi television to the entire nation. Qassem’s successor was the Baath, Saddam’s own party; when it was overthrown in November 1963 after a mere nine months at the helm, all sorts of loathsome instruments of torture were found in the cellars of the royal palace it had turned into an interrogation center, including (as one witness recounted) “electric wires with pincers, pointed iron stakes on which prisoners were made to sit, and a machine that still bore traces of chopped-off fingers.”

Saddam has undoubtedly been the most capable as well as the most savage player in this system. During his years in power—both as vice-president and de-facto leader after the return of the Baath to power in the late 1960’s and as president since July 1979—he fully subjected the ruling party to his will, purging the country’s governing institutions and reducing the national decision-making apparatus to one man surrounded by a docile flock of close associates. Preempting any and all dissent—Saddam’s rise to the presidency was accompanied by the elimination of hundreds of party officials and military officers, including friends—he subordinated all domestic and foreign policies to the one and only goal of political survival.

Yet, like many tyrants before him, Saddam also gradually maneuvered himself into a position that required raising the stakes incessantly in order to survive. Each new acquisition of power engendered a greater fear of losing it. After three decades of external aggression and domestic repression, he has quite evidently failed to eradicate all potential dangers. Nor would some other dictator fare any better. Unless there is fundamental change in Iraq, there will be no solution to the predicament confronting the man at the top of the political pyramid. Whether Sunni or Shiite, Baathist or Islamist, military or civilian, he will continue to confront dissent and disaster at every turn.

The status quo, in short, is no answer. But how realistic is the hope to transform Iraq into the first-ever Arab democracy? In an area of the world where the main instrument of political discourse is physical force, where the role of the absolute leader supersedes that of political institutions, and where citizenship is largely synonymous with submission, it can hardly be surprising that the Western ideal of liberal democracy should have been so glaringly lacking.

There are other complicating factors as well. Long after the fall of the Ottomans—the last great Muslim empire—the inextricable link among religion, politics, and society remains very much alive in the Muslim world, making the introduction of democratic ideals a daunting task. As we are constantly being told, there is no grassroots demand for democracy among Arabs and Muslims, and any attempt to impose it is bound to encounter stiff resistance and to arouse the proverbial “street” to new heights of anti-Americanism.

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Nevertheless, and all these reservations notwithstanding, the September 11 atrocities have dramatically changed the West’s overall calculus of cost and benefit, if only because they so starkly demonstrate the horrendous consequences of failing to address the Middle East’s endemic malaise. Besides, it is not wholly inconceivable that, given the right guidance and support, Arab societies will indeed prove amenable to democracy; holding these societies to a lower political standard can be not only a recipe for inaction but a subtle form of racism. That is why the Bush administration’s idea of “Iraq first,” as a stepping-stone to a wider attempt to democratize significant parts of the Arab world, is of such far-reaching consequence and of such immense promise—provided, however, that the root causes for the lack of democracy in the Arab world are correctly identified and boldly addressed.

Any discussion of this subject must start with the fundamentally unjust distribution of power among the region’s diverse ethnic and religious groups. Much has been written about the artificial nature of the state system in the modern Middle East. According to the received wisdom, the European powers (in particular France and Great Britain), having long set their sights on the territories of the declining Ottoman empire, exploited the latter’s defeat in World War I to carve out a number of artificial states from its carcass. In so doing, however, they attended only to their own imperial interests, completely disregarding local yearnings for political unity.

This standard version is both true and radically incomplete. What it fails to take into account is the great influence wielded by Britain’s local war allies, and particularly Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashemite family (the Sharif of Mecca) and his four sons—who as perpetrators of the “Great Arab Revolt” managed to manipulate the great powers into giving them vast territories of the defunct Ottoman empire without the slightest attention to the real wishes and aspirations of the inhabitants. The emirate of Transjordan (later to be known as the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan), for example, was established in 1921 to satisfy the imperial ambitions of Hussein’s second son Abdallah, while in the same year the modern state of Iraq was created on behalf of and very much at the initiative of Abdallah’s younger brother Faisal.

That the great powers were criminally complicit in this outcome is indisputable. Britain was quite aware of the diversity and fragmentation of the Arabic-speaking communities of the Ottoman empire in general and of Mesopotamia in particular (as the region that was to become Iraq had long been called). As early as 1919, Arnold Talbot Wilson, the acting high commissioner in Mesopotamia, expressed deep misgivings about the country’s fitness for immediate independence. Its predominantly tribal society, accounting for three-quarters of the population, lacked, he wrote, a “previous tradition of obedience to any government except that of Constantinople,” and possessed “an almost instinctive hostility to Arab ‘effendis’ in positions of authority.” Wilson also doubted whether the almost two million Shiites would be prepared to acquiesce in the domination of their Sunni brethren, less than a third their number, and whether “the warlike Kurds in Mesopotamia, who number nearly half a million,” would ever accept an Arab ruler. In sum, “far from making the Arabs on this side our friends,” Wilson warned, “recognition of Faisal as king of Mesopotamia can only be regarded in this country as a betrayal of its interests, and we shall alienate the best elements here.”

Yet by the spring of 1921 the British government had been sufficiently seduced by Faisal’s London champions, notably T. E. Lawrence, to disregard these realities: to impose the foreign Sunni ruler Faisal (who hailed from the Hijaz, in today’s Saudi Arabia) on a predominantly Shiite population, and to incorporate a large non-Arab Kurdish minority into the newly-created state. In so doing, the British effectively saw to it that the socio-political conditions that had existed during Ottoman times, when Shiites were excluded from power and persecuted by the authorities, would be perpetuated indefinitely.

And so it proved. Over the ensuing decades, not only have the Shiites failed to play a role commensurate with their size in Iraq (where they constitute nearly two-thirds of the population), but they have also been ruled as an underprivileged class by the far smaller Sunni community (about a fifth of the population). Nor is this inequity in power the end of the story. In the 1970’s, thanks to Saddam’s ruthless development plans, the situation of the Shiites was made significantly worse as large numbers of them were compelled to migrate to the cities. In their miserable existence, they became fertile soil for anti-regime agitation, their resentment further fueled by their own religious authorities, the ulama, whose traditional position had been undermined by the Baath party’s tight control over the state apparatus.

Religious animosities were thus piled on top of political ones. Organized Shiite opposition to Sunni rule had in fact begun to surface as early as the 1960’s, in the form of an underground religious party, al-Da’wa al-Islamiyya, or the Islamic Call. Inspired by the teachings of the Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the Da’wa preached the replacement of the modern secular state by an Islamic order. Saddam, fearing the spread of religious fundamentalism, had taken steps to deal with this threat upon coming to power, and by the mid-1970’s a number of Shiite ulama had been secretly executed.

But that hardly put a stop to the problem. In February 1977, demonstrations led by Shiite clergymen broke out in the holy towns of Karbala and Najaf, security forces were sent to restore order, and by the time the confrontation subsided, thousands of Shiites had been arrested and an unspecified number on both sides killed or wounded. Within a month, a special court was set up to try participants in the riots. Eight ulama were sentenced to death and fifteen to life imprisonment. The following year, the regime struck at the lifeline of the ulama by taking control of all Shiite revenues.

Worse was to come in February 1979, following the overthrow of the shah of Iran and the rise to power in that country of a revolutionary Shiite regime headed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Demonstrations in support of the new rulers of Iran in the Shiite areas of Iraq were met by military force, including tanks. Within months, martial law had been imposed and a repressive campaign was launched against the Da’wa and its leaders. In April 1980, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was executed together with his sister, and hundreds of Shiite political prisoners, most of them members of the Da’wa party, were placed before firing squads. Saddam sealed the southern part of Iraq, denying foreign worshippers access to Shiite shrines, and expelled some 100,000 Iraqi Shiites from the country.

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If the Shiite experience in modern Iraq has been fearful, the country’s other main ethnic group, the Kurds, have fared no better. A distinct group of Indo-European origin and of mainly Sunni faith, the Kurdish community, which comprises about 20 percent of Iraq’s population, resides in the northern part of the country. In the wake of World War I, the Kurds were promised autonomy with an option for complete independence, only to discover three years later that they had been cheated: the Treaty of Lausanne between Turkey and the victorious Allies bore no specific reference to the Kurds, promising only tolerance for minorities in general.

Since then, the Kurds have been one of the largest aggrieved national minorities in the Middle East. The intractability of their situation stems from a geopolitical fact: they are dispersed across four Middle Eastern countries—Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria—each of which has had a vested interest in suppressing their national aspirations. This predicament has been further aggravated by the fragmentation of the Kurdish community along linguistic, clan, and tribal lines, a circumstance that has hindered the formation of a collective identity and facilitated the group’s suppression.

Kurdish separatism raises the specter of the dissolution of the Iraqi state into three entities: Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni. Had this happened early on, it might have rendered Iraq altogether nonviable, since approximately two-thirds of the country’s oil production and reserves conies from the predominantly Kurdish areas, and the Kurds’ fertile lands are Iraq’s main granary.

But just as Baghdad has always been adamant about keeping Iraq whole, the Kurds, for their part, have conducted a sustained struggle against the central regime. At the beginning they asked for proportional representation in Iraq’s official institutions, including the cabinet, the parliament, and the army, and for a share in the country’s economic resources. Both demands were rejected, as was the claim for regional autonomy presented to the first Baath government in February 1963. Instead, the Baath launched a ferocious military campaign that dragged on inconclusively, driving yet another nail into the coffin of that short-lived regime.

By the time of the Baath’s return to power in 1968, civil war seemed a distinct possibility. Kurdish guerrillas were attacking oil installations in Kirkuk, causing severe economic damage. In response, the central government rushed most of the Iraqi army (four out of six divisions) to the north. In the fierce fighting that followed, the military did not shy away from attacking civilians indiscriminately.

In March 1970, Saddam, then vice president, signed an agreement with the foremost Kurdish leader, Mustafa Barzani, that contained far-reaching concessions to the Kurds. The most important was recognition as a distinct national entity deserving of autonomous rule; other clauses guaranteed cultural, linguistic, and administrative rights, the appointment of a Kurd as vice president of Iraq, and the enhancement of Kurdish representation within the state’s ruling institutions.

But no sooner had the ink dried than Saddam reneged on his promises. According to the agreement, a census was to be held within four years to delineate the exact areas where Kurds constituted a majority. Mixed areas, in which no ethnic group formed a clear majority, were to be kept out of the proposed Kurdish autonomous region. This issue was particularly critical in the Kirkuk province, where Iraq’s main oil fields lay and where the Kurds laid claim to a majority. Saddam, who did not for a moment contemplate Kurdish control over the country’s economic heartland, launched an ethnic-cleansing operation: in September 1971, some 40,000 Kurds were expelled to Iran on the grounds that they were not really Iraqis, and in 1972 tens of thousands more were forced out.

Harsh as these measures were, they paled in comparison with the treatment meted out to the Kurds during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq (1980-88). In early 1988, as the end of the war seemed in the offing, Saddam embarked on a massive punitive campaign aimed at the complete eradication of the Iraqi Kurds as a distinct socio-political community. Named the Anfal campaign, the operation reached heights of brutality exceptional even by Saddam’s merciless standards. Like a steamroller crushing everything in its way, the Iraqi army advanced through the Kurdish regions, indiscriminately spreading death and destruction. Villages were shelled or bombed before being stormed by the army. Then the villagers were rounded up, with the women and children separated from the men and sent to “hamlets” elsewhere. The men and boys were often summarily executed or dispatched to concentration camps in the southwestern Iraqi desert, never to be heard from again.

By the time this horrendous campaign came to an end in the autumn of 1988, thousands of villages and towns in Kurdistan had been demolished and their populations deported. Some half-million Kurds had been ethnically cleansed, while another 250,000 had fled to Turkey and Iran. The international community became vaguely concerned with this genocidal campaign only because of the extensive Iraqi use of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, cyanide, and tabun nerve agent. The most appalling incident took place in March 1988, when Iraqi forces employed gas on an unprecedented scale against the town of Halabja: 5,000 Kurds—men, women, children, and babies—were killed on that day, and nearly 10,000 suffered injuries.

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This historical record casts a black shadow on the idea of Saddam as protector of Iraq’s territorial integrity. Not only has he failed to cement the disparate components of Iraqi society into a unified whole, but he has significantly exacerbated domestic factionalism. No less alarmingly, on several occasions he has brought his country to the brink of complete disintegration.

One such occasion was the early 1970’s, when the general uprising in the Kurdish regions, extensively supported by Iran, brought Iraq to the verge of an abyss. In March 1975, Saddam was forced to agree to radical territorial adjustments in Iran’s favor in the Shatt al-Arab, Iraq’s only naval outlet to the Persian Gulf. Then in 1980 came the futile eight-year war with Iran and, soon thereafter, the disastrously conceived Kuwaiti adventure in the summer of 1990. All in all, his catastrophic foreign adventures have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and wrought untold physical and economic wreckage. And this is not to speak of his domestic record, which includes tens of thousands of civilians brutally murdered by their government and millions left starving while their unelected ruler spends incalculable sums of money on palaces and monuments to himself. Upon Saddam’s ascendancy to the presidency in 1979, Iraq was a regional economic superpower, boasting some $35 billion in foreign-exchange reserves. Today, it has been reduced to dire poverty and underdevelopment, with tens of billions in foreign debt.

Far from ensuring Iraq’s survival as a nation-state, then, Saddam’s continued rule poses the gravest threat to its very survival. By the same token, Saddam’s removal from power could both liberate the Iraqi people from decades of brutal repression and safeguard the country’s continued existence as a unified whole. Above all, it would create an opportunity, for the first time in nearly a century, to place the Iraqi state on a representative basis, one that truly reflected the “general will.”

Over the past months, many people have devoted themselves to imagining what such a post-Saddam Iraq might look like. According to one detailed proposal, prepared last year by a group of Iraqi exiles headed by the prominent intellectual Kanan Makiya, a “transitional authority” chosen by Iraq’s opposition groups would start operating inside the country as soon as the regime began to crumble. After the fall of Saddam, the plan calls for the complete dismantling of the Baath party and the establishment of a war-crimes tribunal and a truth commission to oversee an Iraqi equivalent of the de-Nazification of Germany after World War II. The report envisions a state based on thoroughly secular principles, emphasizing protections for the rights of minorities. Most importantly, it sketches a new system of government—a modified federalism whose constituent parts would be defined along geographical rather than ethnic lines.

There is little doubt that Iraq’s best hope lies with the creation of some sort of decentralized federal system in which each of the country’s ethnic and religious groups would be given a proportional share in national power and resources, as well as extensive cultural and political autonomy in its main place of residence. The clear results would be to elevate the majority Shiites to a position of political preeminence at the expense of the Sunnis, and to integrate the Kurds into the country’s governing structures. The transformation would not be limited to cosmetic changes at the top (such as through the appointment of a Shiite president, a Sunni prime minister, a Kurdish foreign minister, and the like), but would be extended across the entire spectrum of civilian and military life.

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This brings us back to 1991. Was it not precisely because it feared a Shiite rise to dominance and Iraq’s consequent vulnerability to the sway of Iranian militancy that Washington halted the Gulf war immediately after evicting Saddam’s forces from Kuwait and then withheld support from the Shiite (and Kurdish) uprisings against him? Indeed it was. But American apprehensions were largely misplaced then, and all the more so now.

To start with, there is no fundamental hostility between Shiite Islam and the West, any more than there is an inherent affinity between the West and Sunni Islam. Prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, that Shiite country had served as America’s foremost Middle Eastern ally and the protector of the (Sunni) monarchies in the Gulf, while successive radical Sunni regimes in Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus were a constant irritant to their Arab neighbors and the West.

No less important, the behavior of Iraqi Shiites during the Iran-Iraq war vividly demonstrates that they are hardly made of the same fabric as their Iranian co-religionists. In that conflict, not only did they fail to welcome their self-styled Iranian liberators, but they endured the hardships of war in much the same way as other Iraqis, and many of them fought shoulder to shoulder with their compatriots to rebuff the Iranian threat. While the number of Sunni officers in the Iraqi army remained disproportionately high, some Shiite officers were promoted to positions of prestige and responsibility in which they proved their loyalty and patriotism. As for Shiite desertions, these occurred at about the same rate as Sunni desertions and at substantially lower rates than desertions from largely Kurdish units. With the exception of isolated terrorist activities, the Shiite community sealed its social contract with the Iraqi state in the blood of its sons.

As for the Kurds, it is true that a federal Iraq would fall short of satisfying their yearning for independence. But that yearning is impeded by the same geopolitical reality—namely, dispersion—that has prevented the materialization of Kurdish statehood till now. The most that the Kurds of Iraq can realistically aspire to is a consolidation and expansion of the autonomy they have enjoyed under American protection since the 1991 Gulf war, and to this most of their leaders have given their assent. If the Kurdish regions become integrated fully into the new Iraq, the Kurds will enjoy a peaceful and secure existence that is long overdue.

But none of this can happen overnight. If the creation of a federal system seems a necessary institutional condition for Iraq’s eventual democratization, no less indispensable is a shift in the Iraqis’ general political outlook. For Iraq’s legacy of violence stems first and foremost from a failure to internalize either the principles or the guiding norms of the modern nation-state; as long as that failure persists, little true progress can be expected toward democracy.

Once again, the point can be elucidated by a little history. In brief, the Arabic-speaking provinces of the Ottoman empire did not undergo the processes of secularization that created modern Western nationalism in Europe in the late 1700’s and that, over a century and a half later, enabled individual nation-states to step into the breach when the old European empires collapsed after World War I. By contrast, when the Ottoman empire fell, its Middle Eastern components still thought only in the old binary terms. There were, on the one hand, the intricate webs of local loyalties—to clan, tribe, village, town, religious sect, or ethnic minority. On the other hand, there was submission to the distant Ottoman sultan-caliph, in his capacity as the temporal and religious head of the world Muslim community. The latter category now stood empty.

Into this vacuum stepped ambitious leaders speaking the Western rhetoric of “Arab nationalism” but in fact aiming to create new empires. Arab rulers taught their peoples that national independence was a temporary aberration, soon to be rectified by the creation of a unified “Arab nation.” This dream has been articulated most forcefully by the pan-Arab Baath regimes in Iraq and Syria, and it has led to mass suffering and dislocation.

In their report, Makiya and his fellow Iraqi exiles suggest that ethnic identity should be precluded as a basis for the new Iraqi state. As long as Iraq is defined as an Arab state, they argue, other ethnic groups, like Kurds and Assyrians, will continue to be second-class citizens.

This is a profound insight. Arab Iraqis must view themselves as Iraqis first, Arabs second; only thus can they avoid being torn by internal domestic schisms and implicated in imperial adventures. To generalize the same point beyond Iraq, one might say that only when the political elites of the Middle East reconcile themselves to the reality of state nationalism (wataniya) and forswear the imperial dream (qawmiyya) will the likes of Saddam Hussein be fully discredited. Similarly, only when the “pan-” factor has been banished from the Middle East’s political vocabulary and replaced by a general acceptance of diversity will all the inhabitants of the region be enabled at last to look forward to a better future.

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And what role are the United States and its allies to play in this drama? As the Middle East faces its most defining period since the end of World War I, one cannot help being struck by the similarities between the present situation and that moment. The world has of course changed fundamentally since then. The age of imperialism is long gone, and by no stretch of the imagination can today’s U.S. be compared with the former European empires in terms of self-perception, world outlook, or foreign-policy goals. Yet, for whatever clues it can offer to the present, including which courses of action must be avoided, that moment is worth revisiting once more.

In May 1919, when the British government decided to amalgamate the Mesopotamian provinces of the defunct Ottoman empire into a newly created state, it, too, envisaged a federal system. This one comprised four geographical provinces: Basra, Baghdad, Euphrates, and Mosul. (Were Kurdistan to have been included in Iraq, it would have formed a fifth province.) Each was to be administered by a provincial council with “considerable powers but not at present to be made responsible for legislation.” Instead, the local Arab governors at the head of each province were to be assisted by “a specially chosen British official of ability and character as municipal commissioner and adviser to the governor, in which dual capacity he could control finance and mitigate inevitable inefficiency in early stages.”

In short, what was required was an orderly and prolonged transition to statehood under British tutelage and military protection. This comported well with the judgment of the acting civil commissioner, Arnold Talbot Wilson, who, as we saw above, was keenly aware of the unreadiness of the area for political independence. As Wilson wrote to his superiors in June 1920:

The history of this country for the past few thousand years and the practical experience of the past three, alike convince me that we cannot give effect to mandate without risk of disaster, unless we are prepared to maintain for the next two years at least as many troops in the country as we may have, and in a state considerably more efficient than they are now.

In Talbot’s opinion, indeed, unless the British government was prepared to proceed slowly with developing Mesopotamia into a self-governing democratic country—something that would demand an expenditure of men and money for years to come—it “would do better to face the alternative, formidable and, from [the] local point of view, terrible as it is, and evacuate Mesopotamia.”

Alas, it was not to be. Eager to see Faisal installed as Iraq’s first monarch, British decision-makers dropped their original federative idea in favor of a state that would be more tightly controlled and demographically far less representative. Nor did they heed Wilson’s prescient warning about the need to go slowly. Seeking to have their cake and eat it too, they decided on substantial cuts in their military expenditures in Iraq while at the same time implementing plans for rapid modernization. This led in short order to a popular uprising along the southern Euphrates, unmatched in scope and intensity until the Shiite and Kurdish uprising against Saddam in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war.

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Nearly a century later, the choices confronting the Bush administration are starkly reminiscent of those faced by Britain after World War I. Should the U.S. throw its full weight behind the implementation of its ambitious ideals, or pull out shortly after the overthrow of Saddam and the destruction of his deadly arsenal, most probably resigning itself to the substitution of another Iraqi strongman for the deposed tyrant?

Given Iraq’s violent experience during the past half-century, this latter option would almost certainly amount to a betrayal of the Iraqi people. Just as the creation of free and democratic societies in Germany and Japan after World War II necessitated, above and beyond the overthrow of the ruling parties, a comprehensive purge of the existing political elites and the reeducation of the entire populace, so Iraq must undergo a profound structural reform if it is to know representative government. This is certain to be a difficult process, one requiring an extensive American military presence (and, no doubt, occasional military operations) over a protracted period of time, as well as a sustained commitment of financial, administrative, and political aid. But if history tells us anything, it is that any other alternative is an assured recipe for disaster.

March 7, 2003

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