NEW YORK -- As I think about President Bush's plans to take out Saddam Hussein and rebuild Iraq into a democracy, one question gnaws at me: Is Iraq the way it is today because Mr. Hussein is the way he is? Or is Mr. Hussein the way he is because Iraq is the way it is?
I mean, is Iraq a totalitarian dictatorship under a cruel, iron-fisted man because the country is actually an Arab Yugoslavia -- a highly tribalized, artificial state, drawn up by the British, consisting of Shiites in the south, Kurds in the north and Sunnis in the center -- whose historical ethnic rivalries can be managed only by a Hussein-like figure?
Or, has Iraq, by now, congealed into a real nation? And once the cruel fist of Mr. Hussein is replaced by a more enlightened leadership, will Iraq's talented, educated people slowly produce a federal democracy?
The answer is critical, because any U.S. invasion of Iraq will leave the United States responsible for nation-building there. Invade Iraq and we own Iraq. And once we own it, we will have to rebuild it, and since that is a huge task, we need to understand what kind of raw material we'll be working with.
It is instructive in this regard to quickly review Iraq's history before Mr. Hussein. It was a saga of intrigue, murder and endless coups involving the different ethnic and political factions that were thrown together inside Iraq's borders by the British. In July 1958, Iraq's King Faisal II was gunned down in his courtyard by military plotters led by Brig. Abdel Karim Kassem and Col. Abdul Salam Arif. A few months later, Mr. Kassem ousted Mr. Arif for being too pro-Nasserite. Around the same time a young Mr. Hussein tried, but failed, to kill Mr. Kassem, who himself executed a slew of Iraqi Nasserites in Mosul in 1959.
In 1963, Mr. Arif came back from exile and killed Mr. Kassem. A short time later, Mr. Arif, and the Baath Party thugs around him, savagely slaughtered and tortured thousands of left-wingers and communists all across Iraq. Mr. Arif ruled until 1966, when he was killed in a helicopter crash and was succeeded by his brother, who was toppled in 1968 by Mr. Hussein and his clan from the village of Tikrit. Since 1958, every one of these Sunni-dominated military regimes in Baghdad began with a honeymoon with the Kurds in northern Iraq and ended up fighting them.
The point here is that we are talking about nation-building from scratch. Iraq has a lot of natural resources and a decently educated population, but it has none of the civil society or rule of law roots that enabled us to quickly build democracies out of the ruins of Germany and Japan after World War II. So once Mr. Hussein is gone, there will be a power vacuum, revenge killings and ethnic pulling and tugging between Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.
This is not a reason for not taking Mr. Hussein out. It is a reason for preparing the U.S. public for a potentially long, costly nation-building operation and for enlisting as many allies as possible to share the burden. There is no avoiding nation-building in Iraq. Because to get at Iraq's weapons of mass destruction we'll need to break the regime open, like a walnut, and then rebuild it.
What's worrying about the Bushies is that they seem much more adept at breaking things than building things. To do nation-building you need to be something of a naive optimist. I worry that the Bushies are way too cynical for nation-building.
My most knowledgeable Iraqi friend tells me he is confident that the morning after any U.S. invasion, U.S. troops would be welcomed by Iraqis, and the regime would fold quickly. It's the morning after the morning after that we have to be prepared for.
In the best case, a "nice" strongman will emerge from the Iraqi army to preside over a gradual transition to democracy, with America receding into a supporting role. In the worst case, we crack Iraq open and it falls apart in our hands, with all its historical internal tensions -- particularly between its long-ruling Sunni minority and its long-frustrated Shiite majority. In that case, George W. Bush will have to become Iraq's strongman -- the iron fist that holds the country together, gradually redistributes the oil wealth and supervises a much longer transition to democracy.
My Iraqi friend tells me that anyone who tells you he knows which scenario will unfold doesn't know Iraq.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.