WASHINGTON -- The United States is an old hand at supervising unscheduled government transitions in overseas trouble spots. Some examples are Afghanistan, the Philippines and Panama - all relative cakewalks compared with what could lie ahead in Iraq if the U.S. military forces out Saddam Hussein.
On the question of disarmament, Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offers the somewhat chilling prediction that a successful post-Saddam disarmament effort in Iraq would be short-lived.
"The intellectual capital and skills to make weapons of mass destruction will remain," he said last week. "Iraq will have the dual-use facilities to rapidly return to the production of chemical and biological weapons.
"You cannot disarm a sophisticated state. It is an oxymoron." People who think otherwise, he said, "really do not understand this region."
Cordesman is no placard-carrying, anti-war militant. Indeed, he has staked out a pro-war stance, admitting he has done so with "reluctance and considerable uncertainty."
Uncertainty seems to be a dominant sentiment about the aftermath of a war with Iraq. "The American people have no notion what we are about to undertake," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week.
The war's cost? "Unknowable," Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith told the committee, citing the uncertainty about the severity of war-related damage. Two budget experts cited by The New York Times predict the cost could range between $127 billion and $682 billion. The latter figure is more than half the gross national product of Russia.
How long will it take to dispose of Saddam's arsenal?
"We can't, now, even venture a sensible guess as to the amount of time," Feith said. Left unanswered were Cordesman's concerns about a post-Saddam Iraq, freed of U.N. Security Council sanctions, rearming.
Such an outcome might be acceptable to Washington if the transition produced a pro-Western government. But what if Iraq fell back into the hands of people more attuned to the Libyas and the Syrias of the region?
For now, the administration's focus is on the short term. Marc Grossman, an undersecretary of state, told last week's committee hearing that the administration's Iraq roadmap, aside from disarmament, includes the "liberation" of Iraq - not a long-term U.S. military occupation, elimination of the "terrorist infrastructure" and maintenance of the country's territorial integrity. Humanitarian and reconstruction assistance also will be provided.
Iraqi oil "belongs to the Iraqi people," and will be treated as such, Grossman said, adding that a final goal will be "free and fair elections based on a democratic constitution." He predicted that Americans will be in charge of Iraq for two years before turning authority over to the Iraqis.
James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation foresees an outpouring of Iraqi joy if Saddam is deposed, seriously undercutting anti-war protesters who have been on the march lately, especially in Europe.
More worrisome to Phillips is the specter of bloody score-settling by Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, who have suffered horrific abuses under Saddam's Sunni-led regime for years.
"One of the biggest tasks of the U.S. military will be to prevent acts of vengeance," Phillips says.
Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute said she is concerned that the administration is moving far too slowly in lining up opposition leaders for the postwar succession.
The longer the administration waits, she says, the longer Iraq will be under American tutelage, giving the country the status of a U.S. colony - and giving anti-U.S. forces in the region a can't-miss issue.
"You don't get rid of a dictator in order to put in a proconsul," Pletka said. "If you don't give a damn about Iraqi people once Saddam is gone, then we're doing the right thing."