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Some scenarios for the aftermath of a US-led invasion of Iraq

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 18 February 2003


Futurists use the technique of exploring scenarios to try to get a handle on real possibilities for future developments. They make up several scenarios, some at the extremes (best-and worst-case outcomes); some more moderate. But they stress that scenarios at the extremes may actually be just as likely as those in the middle - although we tend not to imagine these extreme things happening until they do.

Let us then apply this method to the greatest problem occupying the world's attention right now, the futures of conflict with Iraq and the wider implications for the world. Obviously, in so few words these scenarios cannot be developed in any depth, but they can help outline some of the likely outcomes if certain things were to happen.

Scenario 1: "The New Golden Age"
Peace is maintained and global order strengthened

Iraq allows unqualified UN access, and either accounts for all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or owns up to remaining stocks and programs. World opinion forces the UN, and thus the US, to allow ongoing inspections in Iraq. Iraq becomes just another country. Aid flows in, Saddam is sidelined, and Iraq approaches normalcy. Discredited by international opinion and domestic economic mismanagement, the current US leadership falls and a new US President adopts a more consensual approach to world affairs. Everyone is so impressed by the successful disarming of a nation of WMD that the now strong UN turns its attention to North Korea (where inspections are traded for economic aid), Pakistan, India and then even Israel, to dismantle nuclear programs in a context of real international security. Pressure mounts for the major nuclear powers to carry out their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and get rid of their own nuclear weapons. France goes first, followed by Russia, Britain, China, and finally the US. Initiatives are then begun to end chemical and biological warfare programs - a much more difficult prospect. However, in this new age of global cooperation and trust, national governments begin to allocate substantial resources to fixing problems around the world in relation to health and the environment. Debate seriously starts on how to restructure the global economy to allow development to occur more evenly.

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Scenario 2: "Business as Usual"
A short war takes place with minimal disruption

Without UN support, the US invades Iraq; fighting and destruction is minimal; Saddam goes, and the US occupies Iraq. A puppet government is set up, the oil flows and prices drop, and everyone returns to business as usual. However, resentment of Western power grows in the Islamic world, and radical terrorism grows with it. Terrorist attacks become commonplace but are comparatively ineffective due to increased powers of suppression. The principle of collective security is weakened, as is the UN, and international relations generally become more strained. Cooperation to face global problems in regard to health, climate change, development, and so on, is limited. The rich countries become ever more militarised and security conscious, and this acts as a major tax on economic growth.

Scenario 3: "Skin of our Teeth"
A messy war occurs but the repercussions are contained

The US invades without UN support; its high-tech weaponry does not work as well as was hoped; the Iraqis strongly resist (including messy house-to-house fighting); Saddam burns oil wells and deploys some WMD against the invaders. The US wins albeit with thousands of casualties, and many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and injured. The US sets up a puppet government. Resistance within Iraq is sustained and a sizeable occupation force must be maintained to suppress it. The whole region becomes destabilised and the US is drawn into a series of brush wars. The US becomes increasingly militarised and nationally chauvinistic, souring relations with other countries. European integration gains pace, with an eye to challenging rampant US power. The US economy weakens severely, adding to global instability.

Scenario 4: "Shit Happens"
A messy war unfolds and a new international arms race begins

As above, the invasion and aftermath do not go well. The US leadership becomes increasingly belligerent as it responds to growing international criticism. The UN is completely sidelined. A solidifying Europe (led by France and Germany) and Russia begin to rearm as they perceive the US as presenting a growing danger. The global economy suffers as international tension undermines trade and the financial markets. China, having caught up in the technology race and operating in quasi-alliance with the Europeans and Russians, overtly challenges US dominance. Meanwhile, the emergence of new diseases and the effects of climate change wreak havoc in the developing world and begin to affect the West.

Scenario 5: "Global Meltdown"
Things spiral out of control

The Iraqi war goes badly. Israel gets involved. Nuclear weapons are used (by someone). There is massive disruption in the Middle East and south-east Asia, and a pan-Islamic coalition emerges to challenge the West, mainly through greatly increased terrorism and insurgency. The global economy implodes, and the corporate sector changes tack to become focused on intra-bloc trade and the provision of weapons and security. New biological weapons and other WMD are developed and used; around the world millions of people, mostly civilians, die. Everyone lives in fear. The world turns into an armed camp and increasingly sophisticated weapons are used more regularly. With or without a cataclysmic global war, human civilisation faces collapse.

The scenarios imagined by futurists never actually come true in detail, of course. However, they help us think about what might happen. Right now decisions are being made that will fundamentally shape our future - and perhaps destroy that future altogether.

Whatever does happen in Iraq, the real lesson is that such decisions should no longer be left to our manifestly irresponsible and incompetent global leaders. Genuinely representative democracy must go global as well.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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