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Thinking the unthinkable: Political science professor Steven Weber imagines Iraq — and the world — after June 30

– On June 30 the U.S. occupation of Iraq will officially end, and the interim Iraqi government will assume "full sovereignty," in partnership with the U.S. military. That has long been the plan - albeit one lacking in actionable items - put forth by the Bush Administration, and on Tuesday, June 8, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously in favor of the formal hand-over. The resolution ratified by the U.N. also commits to helping Iraq's interim government hold democratic elections no later than Jan. 31, 2005, to elect a national assembly that would then draw up a permanent constitution so that direct elections for a full-term government could occur by Dec. 31, 2005.

Steven Weber
'In Iraq, the way to gain prestige and status in this domestic struggle is to attack Americans. And that's not a place that we really want to be. What would happen if on July 1, the U.S. were to pull all its forces out?'
—Steven Weber

With only a few weeks to go until the hand-over, the NewsCenter turned to UC Berkeley professor of political science Steven Weber to discuss what sort of changes might be coming July 1. A provocative and unconventional thinker, Weber will become director of the Institute of International Studies on July 1. He also works as a consultant for the Global Business Network in Emeryville, where he models possible scenarios for corporations and governments in the areas of international trade, monetary and exchange-rate politics, security issues, and political-economy consequences of information technology.

How significant is what's going to happen in Iraq on June 30?

Power will be transferred to a sovereign Iraqi government — but sovereignty is a very flexible legal concept and in practice what it means lies. This government will actually have very limited sovereignty. For example, the Iraqi government will be legally empowered to sign international treaties, although I suspect that if it chose to sign a military cooperation treaty with Iran, the United States would find some way to prevent that. Let me put it this way: in terms of what we think of being standard characteristics of a sovereign state, the hand-over is mostly symbolic. The U.S. military will still be the primary security force in Iraq.

But the U.N. resolution says that the coalition forces are in Iraq at the request and with the consent of the Iraqi interim government, and the government has the right to order their withdrawal.

Which implies that if that invitation is withdrawn, they would no longer be welcome there. The Iraqi president has explicitly said he feels that U.S. forces will be needed. Clearly, that deal has been cut.

However, let's think the unthinkable. If the U.S. were just to declare victory and go home, would that outcome be worse than being stuck in a country that's likely to be on the border of civil war and democratization for the next 5 to 10 years? The fundamental political reality is that in Iraq, the way to gain prestige and status in this domestic struggle is to attack Americans. And that's not a place that we really want to be. What would happen if on July 1, the U.S. were to pull all its forces out?

Civil war?

That's happening now.

Civil war of a more organized sort then, between the Shiites and the Kurds, say.

Possibly. Some would argue that it's time to undo the artificial national boundaries of the post-World World War I peace treaties [in which France was awarded control over Syria and Lebanon and Britain over Palestine and Iraq]. Iraq might very well split up into a Kurdish piece in the north, even if that were then annexed by Turkey; a Sunni state in the middle; and a Shiite state in the south. Now let's assume that the Shiite and Sunni regimes would both be moderately stable authoritarian ones that kept the oil flowing and that didn't permit infiltration by significant numbers of Al Qaeda operatives. Is that an outcome the U.S. would not be able to live with? We might be able to, for a while.

Northern Iraq has effectively been a secular, autonomous Kurdish region for years. Why shouldn't the U.S. let them secede, and protect them from annexation by Turkey?

We have a very close, intimate relationship with Turkey that we need to sustain for lots of strategic reasons. For the U.S. to put the Turks in a position where an independent Kurdistan was formed on the border of Turkey would damage that relationship significantly. The Turks have a huge Kurdish population that would naturally want to be a part of it, destabilizing the Turkish government. The U.S. and ultimately NATO need bases in Turkey really badly, to say nothing of what it would mean to have a strongly anti-Western regime emerge in a big Muslim country like Turkey that's so close to Europe.

So the U.S. has an incentive to keep Iraq united. What if it simply became three semi-autonomous states overseen by a central federal government?

That could happen. Could the U.S. live with that outcome? The most difficult thing would be the impact on Turkey, but everything else would be acceptable. At least until the autonomous Shia state in Iraq perhaps decides that it's going to merge with Iran, forming a new Middle Eastern regional superpower. A lot of Americans would say that will be a terrible thing. I'm not sure it is. Iran is the country most friendly to the U.S. in the Middle East right now - I'm talking about the population, not the rulers. I predict that at some point in the next decade Iran is going to be come a very close ally to the United States.

This might sound far-fetched, but the landscape has been shaken up quite dramatically. The pieces are likely going to fall back into place in ways that are going to surprise a lot of folks. When I look at what people are predicting for the region, the aperture feels a little narrow. They feel like conventional stories, and they may well turn out to be true, but I have a feeling that there may be some real surprises.

How would the rest of the world view an abrupt exit from Iraq by the U.S.?

With great disappointment - maybe not because it's such a terrible idea, but because we pumped up people's expectations about what this war was actually about. We told them we were going to remove a dictator, democratize the country, and then use that experience as leverage to transform the Middle East by example. Well, that's probably not going to happen, although it's not a zero percent probability.

The U.S. would lose credibility in the abstract sense if we were to walk away from this commitment, but that's not as compelling an argument as some people think it is. The message that we would be sending in that case, which is credible, is simply that we can undermine the regime of anyone we want to, at any time.

Aren't we too dependent on future Iraqi oil supplies to walk away?

Iraqi oil would be a good thing to have on the market, but we're critically dependent for now and the foreseeable future on the oil flowing through Saudi Arabia. The real risk in the oil question is Saudi Arabia. Given the recent trajectory of events in Saudi Arabia, we should be more than a little worried. Saudi oil goes off the market, and we're screwed. Screwed.

What if tomorrow there were a major terrorist attack on a significant Saudi Arabian oil installation — not housing complexes for engineers, but a real part of the oil infrastructure, like one of their big loading docks? The price of oil would hit $100 per barrel. I believe that at that point we would see the vast majority of the 150,000 American troops in Iraq moved out to protect the oil installations in Saudi Arabia.

Our dependence on oil is a key feature of politics in this region and it's likely to be that way for the next 25, 30 years, at a minimum. Unless we do something aggressive to change that. As long as we're thinking the unthinkable, what if we were to build 20 nuclear plants a year for the next 10 years?

Well, the expense would be enormous. We already don't have anywhere to put the nuclear waste from our existing plants. And wouldn't they be a huge domestic security risk?

Yes, but we also can't figure out what to do with the carbon waste that your car and my car put into the atmosphere every day. How many people have died from nuclear power plants? I'm not saying nuclear energy is a cure-all, but if we were to start from zero and ask ourselves, "Is there a rapid way to reduce U.S. dependence on petroleum that makes sense environmentally and that we could actually imagine doing?" then building a bunch of nuclear power plants is one way.

There's a lot of things we don't like about nuclear power, but there's a lot of things about burning Saudi oil that we don't like either. Are we really better off maintaining the security apparatus built up around protecting and transporting oil to the United States and our allies? The Seventh Fleet of the U.S. Navy is out there guarding the Strait of Malacca, escorting oil tankers back and forth. [Most of the tankers carrying Middle East oil pass through the Strait on their way to Pacific ports.] It's a very long supply chain. If you want to talk about geopolitical vulnerability, that's an example of where it is. It's like being in an intensive care unit in a New York hospital on 2nd Avenue and having your blood transfusion line running out down 59th Street, across five city blocks and through Fifth Avenue to a hospital on the other side of the street.

You've said that "there are at least three-and-a-half or four billion people on this planet who believe that they have nothing to lose from the decline of the West." Has the U.S. done anything to change this perception?

Yes, I call this my tagline, I say it so often. But it's an unfortunate truth. We've still failed to face that reality — that most of the world has nothing to lose from the decline of our way of life. When you are in a situation where you're doing badly, and you see your economic situation only getting worse, and realize that your children's lives will be no better, then terrorism is no longer a nihilistic act. It becomes a constructive act. We Americans know that intellectually, but we're too steeped in liberal cultures to really understand it at a gut level. We have done almost nothing to give a stake in the status quo as we see it to the billions of people in the world who are in that position.

Here's a useful analogy. Henry Kissinger had a significant insight regarding the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union that led to détente. During the Cold War, the fear was that the Russians had the capability - and possibly, the intention - to undermine the world order benefiting the United States. Kissinger said that the single best thing the U.S. could do would be to try to integrate the interests of the Soviet Union into aspects of that world order so that they would have a stake in trying to maintain it. Trade, technology transfers, arms control agreements were all part and parcel of creating a situation where the Soviet leaders would have more to lose than to gain if they were to undermine the relationship.

We haven't thought carefully enough about how to give those 4 billion people a real and significant stake in the status quo that is benefiting us so strongly. Once there was a time when it was easy to think about putting them behind walls and not really worrying about them. Now, thanks to air transport, technology, disease, and all the other factors of globalization, we have to face the fact that we are all living on this planet together.