Iraqi cartoonist Muayed Naima, like other artists, intellectuals and writers, worked within tight constraints under Saddam Hussein. In this cartoon, Naima depicts fanged snakes emerging from the base of a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein, Baghdad, Iraq, September 24, 2004.
Muayed Naima / Reuters

A Singaporean Perspective

The basic feature of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was inclusiveness -- a willingness to embrace any country that opposed communism, whatever its type of government. The United States contested the Soviet system and held the line militarily, and its consistent and comprehensive approach eventually led to the Soviet Union's implosion.

After the Cold War came the "war on terror." Islamist terrorists tried to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993 and bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001. In response, the United States attacked Afghanistan and routed the Taliban. Then, in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein and establish democracy there.

During the war on terror, however, the United States has not been as inclusive as it was in its war against communism. Aside from those in the "coalition of the willing," even most European countries have distanced themselves from Washington.

The United States did not realize, moreover, the depth of the fault lines in Iraqi society -- between Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites, and the members of different tribes and local religious groups. These tensions were contained during four centuries of Ottoman rule, and the British, who took over from the Ottomans in 1920, put Iraq under strong Sunni control, centered on Baghdad. Now, because of the destruction of the old Iraqi society, for the first time in centuries, power is in the hands of the Iraqi Shiites.

With Sunni control of Iraq removed, Shiite Iran is no longer checked from extending its influence westward. And by allowing the emergence of the first Shiite-dominated Arab state, the United States has stirred the political aspirations of the 150 million or so Shiites living in Sunni countries elsewhere in the region.

The United States has long relied on its traditional Sunni Arab allies, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, to keep the Arab-Israeli conflict in check. Now the power of the Sunni bloc may no longer be able to counter an Iran that supports militias such as Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel. The new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, found it necessary to publicly support the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon during the fighting this past summer.

I am not among those who say that it was wrong to have gone into Iraq to remove Saddam and who now advocate that the United States cut its losses and pull out. This will not solve the problem. If the United States leaves Iraq prematurely, jihadists everywhere will be emboldened to take the battle to Washington and its friends and allies. Having defeated the Russians in Afghanistan and the United States in Iraq, they will believe that they can change the world. Even worse, if civil war breaks out in Iraq, the conflict will destabilize the whole Middle East, as it will draw in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey.

On Iraq, the Singaporean government has been and is in firm support of President George W. Bush and his team. We have helped to train Iraqi police and have thrice deployed a tank landing ship to the Gulf, each time with about 170 personnel, a C-130 detachment, and three separate KC-135 detachments for air-to-air refueling missions. President Bush was right to invade Iraq to depose Saddam and try to remove the weapons of mass destruction that intelligence agencies in Europe and the United States assessed Iraq to have had.

But I became nervous when the United States disbanded the Iraqi army and police and dismissed all Baathists from the Iraqi government. I feared this would create a vacuum.

I recalled how when the Japanese captured Singapore in February 1942 and took 90,000 British, Indian, and Australian troops prisoner, they left the police and the civil administration intact and functioning -- under the control of Japanese military officers but with British personnel still in charge of the essential services, such as gas and electricity. Except for a small garrison, most of the 30,000 Japanese invasion forces had left Singapore and headed to Java within a fortnight. Had the Japanese disbanded the police and the civil administration when they interned the British forces, there would have been chaos.

Perceptions of U.S. unilateralism have triggered an informal countercoalition of necessity among those countries that oppose the coalition of the willing. Many in this countercoalition are not on the side of the jihadists. Russia and China, along with some European countries, have come together simply to protect their interests against what they perceive as U.S. encroachment on their respective domains. They have no fundamental conflict of interest with the United States.

To isolate the jihadist groups, therefore, the United States must be more multilateral in its approach and rally Europe, Russia, China, India, and all non-Muslim governments to its cause, along with many moderate Muslims. A worldwide coalition is necessary to fight the fires of hatred that the Islamist fanatics are fanning. When moderate Muslim governments, such as those in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Persian Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan, feel comfortable associating themselves openly with a multilateral coalition against Islamist terrorism, the tide of battle will turn against the extremists.


The Bush administration has set out to spread democracy in Iraq and the Middle East more generally. In the long run, democracy can prevail, but the process will not be easy.

A free and fair election, moreover, is not the best first step toward democracy in a country that has no history or tradition of self-government. Without adequate preparations, elections simply allow people to vent their frustrations against the corruption and inadequacies of the incumbents and vote in the opposition, regardless of its characteristics. This is what led to Hamas' gaining power in the Palestinian territories.

A better start would be to concentrate on education, the emancipation of women, and the creation of economic opportunity. Next should come a focus on implementing the rule of law, strengthening the independence of the courts, and building up the civil-society institutions necessary for democracy. Only then will free elections lead to a more democratic order.

To think that Iraq can go from dictatorship to democracy via two elections in three years is to expect too much. Such a transformation is an effort for the long haul, well beyond the two- and four-year U.S. electoral cycles.

In its struggles today, the United States should remember the principles and policies that guided its responses to Cold War threats and accept that no single power, religion, or ideology can conquer the world or remake it in its own image. The world is too diverse. Different races, cultures, religions, languages, and histories require different paths to democracy and the free market. Societies in a globalized world will influence and affect one another. And what social system best meets the needs of a people at a particular stage in their development will be settled internally.

Regarding the rest of the Middle East, Singapore is much indebted to Israel. When we became independent in 1965, Israel was the only country that helped us build a citizen army. The Israeli colonel who led a team of ten officers from 1966 to 1968 revisited Singapore as a brigadier general a decade later and was surprised at our economic progress. He lamented the slower economic progress in Israel. I told him we had been at peace with our neighbors and that Singapore's armed forces were a deterrent, a weapon of last resort against adventurism by any country. Israel, on the other hand, had been engaged in successive wars.

To solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there must be two states, one for Israel and another for the Palestinians. But the latter must be viable, one for which peace is worth making. The United States should urge Israel to encourage such a Palestinian state to emerge and help it prosper -- for the Palestinians will have reason to avoid war if war will destroy the future they are building for themselves.

Progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue would not just be beneficial in its own right but would also relieve Sunni Arab discontent that arises from the perception that their countries acquiesce in U.S. support for Israel against Palestinian interests. If the United States were seen to actively support the peace process with the goal of a two-state solution, Sunni governments would be more likely to openly support U.S. policies for peace in the greater Middle East.

As for Iran, it is publicly committed to the destruction of Israel and will try to sabotage any peace settlement, because the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is necessary for its fight against the Sunni Arab states for leadership of the Muslim world. Encouraged by North Korea's recent nuclear test, Iran will press ahead with its own nuclear program. If and when Tehran gets sufficient fissile material, the balance of power in the Gulf will be fundamentally changed. The Iranian problem will eclipse the Iraqi problem and be at the top of the international agenda. And if Iran's theocracy succeeds, it, not democracy, will be seen as the way of the future for many in Muslim countries.


The reason I am so focused on the Middle East is that my first close interaction with the United States grew out of the country's involvement in a previous painful struggle, that in Vietnam. Between 1966 and 1971, American leaders used to stop by Singapore after visiting South Vietnam to discuss the regional situation with me. Washington had sent in some 500,000 troops without sufficient knowledge of the history of the Vietnamese people and paid a huge price in blood, treasure, prestige, and confidence as a result.

Conventional wisdom in the 1970s saw the war in Vietnam as an unmitigated disaster. But that has been proved wrong. The war had collateral benefits, buying the time and creating the conditions that enabled noncommunist East Asia to follow Japan's path and develop into the four dragons (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) and, later, the four tigers (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand). Time brought about the split between Moscow and Beijing and then a split between Beijing and Hanoi. The influence of the four dragons and the four tigers, in turn, changed both communist China and communist Vietnam into open, free-market economies and made their societies freer.

The conventional wisdom now is that the war in Iraq is also an unmitigated disaster. But if the troubles in Iraq are addressed in a resolute, rather than a defeatist, manner, today's conventional wisdom can be proved wrong as well. A stabilized, less repressive Iraq, with its different ethnic and religious communities accepting one another in some devolved framework, can be a liberating influence in the Middle East.

The challenge now, as in the 1970s, is for the United States to find an honorable exit from a conflict that developed in an unexpected way. Once begun, however, the problem has to be seen through to the finish so that irreparable damage is not done to the United States and the world at large. An Iraq that coheres as one state; includes Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, and others; and is not manipulated by any of its neighbors represents an outcome that would accord with the interests of the United States, Iraq's neighbors, and the wider world. Washington should therefore bring all of Iraq's neighbors into the process of achieving this objective.

The next president will face a new world. There will be not just Iraq but also Iran to contend with, and the long-term fight against Islamist militants will still only be in its early rounds. But the United States overcame the setbacks of the war in Vietnam, checkmated Soviet expansion, and became the indispensable superpower. With a wide coalition and a proper attitude, the United States can prevail now as well.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Lee Kuan Yew is Minister Mentor of Singapore.
    He was Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. This piece was adapted from
    a speech he delivered when accepting the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service
    in October 2006.
  • More By Lee Kuan Yew