(Note from the author: This article was published April 15, 2003 as U.S. forces invaded Iraq. As they withdraw, I thought it would be useful to look back).

America is about to become a colonial power. That step will carry with it profound — and potentially disastrous — implications for our long-term relationship with the Islamic world and our view of ourselves.

With the invasion of Iraq, a nation founded on the principles of liberty and self-determination will follow in the footsteps of the Romans, Ottomans and British, occupying Arab territory and serving as overlord of a vast swath of the Islamic world. Like those foreign invaders, we will exist as a thorn in the heart of the Middle East, creating an imperial presence that will irrevocably redraw the region’s geopolitical map.

“We’ll push as quickly as possible for Iraqi interim authority to draw upon the talents of Iraq’s people to rebuild their nation,” President Bush said in his Azores news conference. “We are committed to the goal of a unified Iraq, with democratic institutions of which members of all ethnic and religious groups are treated with dignity and respect.”

Such ideals may resonate with some segments of the American public, but the reality will be far less elegant than the sound bite.

When the dust settles in the deserts of Iraq, a puppet regime will stand in place of Saddam Hussein. But just as Baghdad’s ruling class carried out the dictates of the Ottoman Sultans of the Seljuk Empire, the new government of a “free” Iraq will serve at the pleasure of an American proconsul backed by tens of thousands of US troops. That general will lord over a country riven by religious and ethnic antipathies, with no tradition of democratic government. The implications strike at the core of America’s values.

“We’re at a turning point in American history here. We are about to embark on an operation that’s going to put us in a colonial position in the Middle East,” Gen. Wesley Clark (ret), former Supreme NATO commander, said recently. “It’s a huge change for the American people and for what this country stands for.”

At the end of the first Gulf War, the US called on Iraqis to rise up and shake off Saddam’s yoke. When Shi’ites in the south and Kurds in the north did just that, American policy planners panicked, recognizing the geopolitical consequences of a dismembered Iraq. American air cover was withdrawn and the rebels were massacred.

The religious, ethnic and political rivalries that spooked us then have not magically disappeared. The Shi’ites of southern Iraq naturally gravitate toward Iran, the region’s only Shi’ite state. The Kurds of the north — themselves divided between two warlords — have long wanted to link up with their brethren in Iran, Syria and Turkey and recreate pre-colonial Kurdistan. The idea would be anathema to America’s NATO ally Turkey, whose designs on the Kurdish oil fields threatens to spark a conflict between those ancient enemies that would leave American forces caught in the crossfire of their would-be allies.

Meanwhile, both the Shi’ites and Kurds harbor generations of resentment toward Iraq’s Sunnis, who have ruled since the Ottoman Empire. Throw in internecine rivalries fomented by Saddam’s policy of divide and rule and America faces the prospect of an open-ended occupation. In the lead up to the war, American diplomats struggled to get Iraqi opposition leaders to even sit down at the same table. With real power at stake in the post-war era and new actors in the room, it will only get worse. No one in the administration has stood up to give even a hint of how it is all going to work.

“The idea of a quick and easy democratic transformation is a fantasy,” a recent policy paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded.

Which will leave America as Iraq’s new colonial power, occupying the ancient capital of the Islamic world. Even when current troop levels are drawn down in the post-war era, the US will maintain in place the most powerful military force the Middle East has ever seen. The political, economic and military fault lines that have dominated the region for the past half-century will be torn asunder.

Iran, one fulcrum in Bush’s “axis of evil,” will find itself sandwiched between armies of “The Great Satan” massed on its western border with Iraq and eastern border with Afghanistan. Syria, at the top of the administration’s list of countries supporting terrorism, will be likewise trapped between the forces of its archenemy Israel and those of Israel’s patron-state, the US. When the Pentagon released its long-term strategy plan for the war on terror at the end of last year, administration officials were quick to tell reporters that the war against Iraq would send a “strong message” to the Tehran and Damascus regimes. Both hard-line governments despise Saddam; Iran, in particular, would have much to gain by a neutralized or dismembered Iraq; but each risks much with American troops, and even the most tenuous of “democratic” pro-Western governments, on their doorstep.

Across the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia — whose historically close ties with the US have become ambiguous of late — will find itself checkmated, with US forces standing atop oil reserves that rival its own. Vast new military bases in Iraq, the new US regional command center in Qatar and existing American facilities in Bahrain and Oman, will neutralize Washington’s historic reliance on Saudi airfields.

At the same time, the Americans will control the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a crucial water source for the Middle East. The Persian Gulf will become an American lake, while the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, bases in Turkey and new airfields in Djibouti complete the encirclement.

No longer will the US require host-country permission to stage troops. Special operations will be carried out at leisure in what will amount to America’s extended backyard. The temptation to flex those muscles will be strong.

Oil, water, trade and the birthplace of Islamic civilization: All in American hands, controlled by troops commanded by a president whose doctrine declares the right to strike when and where he pleases.

And we thought Muslims had a reason to hate us before.

“We are following with great concern the preparations of the Crusaders to launch war on the former capital of Muslims and to install a puppet government,” the ever-opportunistic Osama bin Laden declared in a recent audio tape. The al Qaeda chief is no fan of Saddam Hussein — in the same recording, he referred to the Iraqi regime as “godless” — but he has seized on the impending American invasion of Iraq as effectively as he exploited the Palestinian cause to expand his appeal.

Crusade. There is no more loaded word in the lexicon of the Middle East. For centuries after the Prophet Muhammed’s conquest of Mecca, Muslims had interpreted the Qur’anic injunction to jihad (holy war) as a call for an internal spiritual struggle and an external struggle to create a true Islamic community. It was not until Christendom’s brutal and unprovoked war of conquest in the Crusades — beginning with the slaughter of 40,000 Muslim men, women and children in Jerusalem — that jihad once more came to be viewed by Muslims in a military context. That psychological shift — which still resonates a thousand years later — was provoked not simply by the Crusaders’ occupation of Palestine, but, notably, by their attempt to storm Baghdad.

Right up to the present day, some Islamic fundamentalists refer to US foreign policy as hurub al-salibiyya, the Wars of the Cross; or more simply translated: the Crusade. To Muslim eyes, what more vivid proof that the West continues that ancient struggle than the continued presence of a Western-backed colonial outpost in Palestine and the occupation of Baghdad by the armies of a Christian president who 18 months ago declared “a Crusade” against Muslim jihadis?

President Bush has insisted that the Iraq conflict is part of the war on terrorism. Yet far from coherently demonstrating that the invasion will reduce the threat, there are numerous signs it will further inflame Muslim rage, radicalize the moderates, and unite voices at both ends of the Islamic political spectrum.

From his pulpit in Mecca last month, Saudi Arabia’s chief cleric told Muslims who had gathered from around the world for the annual Hajj pilgrimage to stand against the “vast troops” of the “enemies of Islam.” Meanwhile one of the leading proponents of reform within the House of Saud demanded that Arab troops be sent to Baghdad to preclude an American invasion.

“The Arabs should not wait. The Arab people should be the main player in resolving this case, rather than have the colonial solution be imposed on us,” declared Prince Sultan bin Turki, a nephew of King Fahd.

All this before a shot was fired in anger. What will the voices say if the Iraqi dictator makes a stand in the cities, forcing the US to settle into a long and politically costly siege, as the Israelis did in Beirut. And what if Saddam eludes the invaders, disappearing into the maze of tunnels beneath the Iraqi capital and, like bin Laden, becomes a mythic figure, stirring the masses from the shadows. How will the Muslim mainstream react once Iraqi forces are vanquished and a massive American army stands poised at the heart of the Middle East, controlling the region’s oil wealth, dictating its politics and casting a huge shadow over the Arab psyche?

Those who point to the pockets of jubilant Iraqi civilians who have so far greeted US troops need only look at the fate of Israel in South Lebanon and in the Occupied Territories to be reminded of the looming dangers. Israeli troops were welcomed by the Shi’ites as liberators when they invaded Lebanon in 1982 and drove out the PLO. Within a year, Israeli forces were locked in a bloody guerrilla war with those same Shi’ites, a conflict that would claim more than 1,000 Israeli lives and inspire the suicide bombers of the West Bank and Gaza.

Bin Laden’s appeal stems in part from the presence of US forces near the holy places of Islam, as well as Muslim resentment toward what is broadly perceived as America’s political, economic and cultural arrogance; an arrogance epitomized by Bush’s declaration that “free people will set the course of history.” How will the Muslim mainstream react once a massive American army stands poised at the heart of the Middle East, controlling the region’s oil wealth and dictating its politics?

American diplomats in the Islamic world are girding for the worst. “Previously friendly, moderate leaders have warned that war might unleash an enormous anger against the American community that could turn violent,” the US ambassador in Indonesia, Ralph L. Boyce, warned in a February letter to Jakarta embassy staff.

The fallout is already being felt, from riots in many parts of the Arab world to a terrorist plot in Indonesia that prompted US officials to urge Americans to leave the country. And even as the facade of a “Coalition of the Willing” wears thin, the once powerful anti-terror coalition is unraveling, underlined by the word of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, America’s most outspoken Muslim ally in the wake of Sept. 11, who has called the invasion of Iraq the act of a cowardly, imperialist bully.

“The war on Iraq is sowing seeds of unacceptable civilizational, cultural and religious boundaries across the globe,” India’s Asian Age newspaper declared. Some administration officials talk of a democratic regime in Iraq creating a ripple effect across the Arab world.

And what effect will a US colonial regency have on the American public? The widespread roundups of foreigners, open-ended detention without trial or access to counsel, increased wiretaps and email monitoring, these and other homeland security measures are already causing deep discomfort among those who bemoan the erosion of the basic rights upon which the US was founded.

The country is already divided over the prospect of war. President Bush has promised a swift victory and brief occupation. Will Americans have the stomach for their new role as colonial power if he is wrong?

Then there are the wildcards. Enough exist to fill a deck.

Emboldened by America’s adoption of its first-strike doctrine, will Israel’s warrior prime minister, Ariel Sharon, seek to settle scores or fulfill territorial ambitions during the conflict or in the post-war era?

Will Saddam unleash anthrax or some other chemical or biological weapon against his own Shi’ite or Kurdish populations as America invades, leaving the US facing an unprecedented human disaster for which it would ultimately be blamed?

Will American forces find themselves annihilating children? Iraq has trained tens of thousands of child soldiers, some as young as 10 years old. Aside from the psychological implications for the soldiers themselves and the effect on US public opinion, such scenes would have a devastating impact on America’s image abroad. As a recent study by the Brookings Institution warned, “the death of any children, even child soldiers, would likely resonate across the Islamic world. The US should expect that these children would be portrayed in the Muslim press as heroic martyrs defending their homes against the American Goliath.”

Any one of these or a dozen other wildcard scenarios will serve as more fuel to feed the fires of Muslim anger.

Just as significantly, they may lead many Americans to question our values as a nation, undermining the very sense of morality that helped the country survive 9/11; eroding the values that we like to say separate our actions from those of the minions of terror.

“We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary,” President Bush told the nation. Therein lies the peril — for the region, for the world and for us.

By Lawrence Pintak

Lawrence Pintak is an award-winning journalist and scholar. He is a former CBS News Middle East correspondent and was founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University (2009-2016). He was named a Fellow of the Society by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2017 for "outstanding service to the profession of journalism" around the world. Pintak is a contributor to ForeignPolicy.com, The Daily Beast, and other outlets. Read his articles at pintak.com. His books include Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & The War of Ideas; Islam for Journalists (co-editor); The New Arab Journalist; and Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad. He holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Follow him on Twitter @LPintak.

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