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The Second Gulf War and Geopolitics

Timur Kuran
Brief Address at USC Teach-In
27 March, 2003

To put the horrendous ongoing war in perspective, I’d like to take us back for a moment to the Cold War, which pitted the United States and its allies against highly repressive communist regimes. These regimes were economic failures, and they were hated by their peoples. In 1989, when a few street demonstrators exposed their vulnerability, these regimes fell like a row of dominoes. The Berlin Wall came down. The peoples of Eastern Europe rejoiced. Democracies–imperfect democracies but still freer regimes–took their place. And a huge threat to world peace was gone.

In the minds of some people, including many within the United States government, this war of 2003 was to produce—apparently some still believe that it will produce—a similarly happy outcome. As soon as Saddam is gone, or appears vulnerable, the Iraqi people will rise against the regime. They will celebrate. They will greet American soldiers as liberators. Iraq will become a democracy, or something close to it. It will also start growing economically and cease threatening world peace. Furthermore, the other repressive and hated regimes of the Arab world will then fall like another row of dominoes. Arab governments will become more efficient, reducing Arab grievances and therefore Arab terrorism. Another threat to global peace will be gone.

That is the optimistic scenario.

However, there is room for pessimism—for doubting that this war will produce a happy domino effect. For one thing, whereas the East European regimes were toppled by their own people, in this case it is an outside force that is striving to trigger an uprising. For another, that outside force is the world’s only superpower, whose motives are suspect. There is a belief that the United States is after Iraq’s oil and that it will set up a puppet regime ready to serve American interests rather than those of the Iraqis. Insofar as this belief is widespread, we are unlikely to see a general uprising against Saddam Hussein. Yes, Saddam might be hated, but the United States is not trusted, and few Iraqis are willing to be remembered as having facilitated American occupation. Even worse, there may be a reverse domino effect: other Arab regimes that have been taking cautious steps in the direction of liberalization and democratization will reverse course and become more repressive.

That is the pessimistic scenario. It implies that the war will fuel more anti-Americanism, more terror, and more global instability.

There is an additional source of worry, which is that this war (unlike Gulf War I) was launched without international approval. On the contrary, practically all major countries, and an overwhelming majority of their populations, opposed this war, and now that it is under way they consider it illegitimate. They see it as a war of choice, not a lawful response to a clear and present danger. This situation has strained our alliances to the breaking point; long-time allies wonder whether there is a future to their alliances, whether Washington will ever listen to them.

The damage to our alliances is bound to have lasting repercussions. In opinion columns of the world’s newspapers and web sites, there is already talk of new alliances forming to check American power and unilateralism. There is enormous fear of a period of global instability, not because of Saddam and his weapons–although that is a factor, of course–but because of weakened international law.

To be sure, we all have a shared interest in international law. We ourselves invoked it a few days ago–justly so–when Iraq humiliated and paraded in front of TV cameras American P.O.W.s.


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