There are some pretty major fights going on behind closed doors in Washington at the moment, it seems pretty clear. Tony Blair seems keen to side with American doves – and the views of France, Russia et al are even more predictable than they are irrelevant.
The question is this: whose flag shall fly over the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance? At the moment US troops have that special diplomatic immunity that comes from firing big guns. But when things settle down a little, will they be subject to Iraqi law? Will there be a semi-permanent US forces base established in Iraq, under US jurisdiction? Will General Garner, the designated head of ORHA, be answerable to the Iraqi head of an Iraqi Interim Authority, or will it be the other way around? Most of all, will ORHA have a free reign to root out Ba’athists and stamp on ongoing corruption? These are very important questions, and as yet it seems President Bush has not decided the answers.
If you want a vigourous programme of de-Ba’athification, and if you see a shining future of a liberal, secular, democratic, capitalist Iraq undermining its neighbours’ autocracies with blue jeans and Big Macs, then having the Iraqi government chaperoned by an extended period of benignly authoritarian military administration may be the only way to get there.
If Bush chooses to go this route, and fancies some delicious payback for Schroeder, look to see spokesmen from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute making public comparions with post-war Germany real soon now.
But many Westerners believe that that is unrealistic, that it fails to respect local culture, that it will unite Islamists and nationalists in violent rebellion, and believe that the best the West can do in the Middle East is to tread very carefully and try not to upset the local balance of power. For them, the best the US can do is find a reasonably credible Iraqi to appoint as the next President and get out of there as quickly as possible.
Of course, most adherents to the latter school of thought would never have gone into Iraq in the first place. That’s not to say that their worries are without foundation: a bigger criticism is to ask whether the war was worth the trouble, if only to replace Saddam with a cut-price Saudi prince.
It would indeed be a big gamble to go for the big prize. We could indeed see escalation as Syrian-backed insurgents make Bagdad a perpetual Beirut. But this is the moment of the big opportunity. Maybe it is time to leave our winnings on the table and let it ride.