Iraq: What Went Wrong?

Posted By January 3, 2007 No Comments

The US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq had several promised benefits: Three of which were easily achieved. The dictatorial strongman Saddam Hussein was rapidly ousted from power in an invasion which also show-cased American military prowess pour encourager les autres. His development projects to produce weapons of mass destruction were finally ended as well; this last being especially easy to accomplish as these were in severe disarray and Saddam’s scientists had been lying about the status of their programs to protect their own skins.

The other benefit promised by President George W. Bush was the transformation of Iraq into a more democratic and prosperous nation – making it an example that could transform one of the world’s most repressive and backward neighbourhoods. This hasn’t worked.

Instead, the United States is now mired in the sort of conflict its citizens hate the most – a protracted and complex melee with various guerrillas and terrorists, but with no end in sight; the adjacent nation of Iran is rapidly completing its nuclear weapons programs and has tested its delivery systems; and most of the Middle East remains as surly, truculent and regressive as ever. Additionally, they have a brand new grievance — the effrontery of a Western nation trying to transform an Arab land — to clutch as close to their hearts as the rest of their long list of querulous complaints. This additional ‘humiliation’ is aiding considerably with recruitment for the great Jihad.

The transformation of so much promise into such a dismal outcome demands exploration. Why did things go so wrong? There are probably several answers, which are all true in combination with each other.

Firstly, the American-led coalition did achieve its promise to allow Iraqis to select and create their own democratic government. Elections were held, and it was inspiring to see millions of Iraqis turn out – sometimes even stepping over the corpses of other voters murdered at the polls by terrorists – and vote in free and fair elections. However, all efforts by the Iraqis to form an effective new government were fouled-up by the entrenched tribalism that plagues the Arab World.

Protracted negotiations about specific entitlements and roles in government, multiple changes in personnel, constantly shifting coalitions and endemic nepotism characterized the emerging Iraqi government institutions. The division between Shi’ia, Sunni, Kurdish and other identities was bad enough, but many Iraqis also allowed even narrower clan and tribal loyalties to trump their sense of national identity. Saddam, of course, had favoured Tikriti tribe members above all others and had reigned in the rest of the country through state terror.

The second problem was the willingness of the Salafist/Wahhabi Jihadis of Al Qaeda, the extremist Shi’ia agents of Iran, and sundry other local actors to murder tens of thousands of fellow Muslims and sabotage all economic progress to keep the Americans and their Coalition from “winning” by transforming Iraq. The Wahhabists were especially eager not just to punish Iraqis for presuming to benefit from an improved economy and political freedoms, but were also absolutely determined to keep the Shi’ia majority from ruling over the Sunni minority.

The Wahhabi/Salafist terrorists who rushed into Iraq to destabilize the country are reminiscent of hard-core Mississippi KKK members in the days of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in their efforts to keep Blacks “in their place” – except even the worst Klansmen never contemplated some of the bloody outrages that Iraq has recently witnessed. The malicious destructiveness of the terrorists is symptomatic of an angry child who would rather destroy something he cannot keep than let anyone else have it.

Some terrorism against American and Coalition troops in Iraq was to be expected, but the sheer bloody-minded lethality inflicted on ordinary Iraqis both by agents of Iran and Wahhabi/Salafist cadres from throughout Sunni Islam was unexpected. The determination of these champions of Islam to both ignite sectarian violence and keep their fellow Muslims impoverished, terrified and miserable speaks volumes about the nobility of their cause.

Iraq’s neighbours were at least as unhelpful. The Saudis – as usual — played it both ways, letting thousands of their own citizens cross into Iraq to participate in the Jihad (and thus getting potential troublemakers out of their own kingdom), and only belatedly erected a border fence to limit this. The Syrians and Iranians are still doing all they can, short of an open provocation, to encourage the bloodshed by smuggling arms and money into Iraq, and letting would-be insurgents pass through their territory. Iran played an especially two-faced role, occasionally supporting the Wahhabi insurgents even though they were killing tens of thousands of Shi’ites, and then turning around and passing arms to the Shi’ites to avenge themselves against Sunnis.

The third and fourth major causes of the failure to stabilize a new Iraq are closely linked: The American ‘de-ba’athification’ of Iraq’s police, military and civil service was badly botched. For most members of the Ba’ath party in Iraq, membership conveyed the same benefits that it did to Soviet party members in the USSR or Nazi party members in Germany. For many Iraqis, party membership was not so much an endorsement of policy and the leadership, as it was a means to personal advantage. For example, a Soviet soldier in 1941-45 who became a Communist Party member could at least expect better treatment if wounded and that his family would be notified if he was killed (there were no “Kremlin regrets” telegrams for non-Party members). An Iraqi school teacher or city engineer who joined the Ba’ath party could expect a significantly higher salary. Few joined out of adoration for Saddam.

The blanket ‘de-ba’athification’ by purging all office holders undertaken in the early days after Saddam’s overthrow essentially gutted Iraq’s police, military and civil service. Certainly it seems improper to let the members of totalitarian political parties stay on in office, but huge numbers of Nazis, Fascists and Communists were retained in office in post-war Europe and post-Soviet central Europe to keep things running.

In retrospect, trying to rebuild all of Iraq’s institutions by completely purging them while the country was under the lash of terrorism appears to have been a serious error. In many instances, unemployed party members joined the insurgents while many others were hired anyway for Iraq’s emerging police, military and civil service as being the best people for the job. It would have been less disruptive to leave them in office in the first place.

The botched de-ba’athification reflects the fourth cause of failure: Simply put, despite what its critics think, the United States is just not an imperial or colonial power – frankly, they don’t know how to act like one. The British and French know how to clone their institutions and how to adapt them to local conditions. They have centuries of experience to learn how to do this and a long history of failure and success to draw from. Even some ‘post-colonial’ nations (if one dares describe Australia and India this way) can successfully clone their institutions in other countries – as Australian-trained police and courts daily demonstrate throughout the South Pacific. The United States does not know how to do this and, with the possible exception of the Philippines, has never managed to build a successful administration from scratch in another country.

America’s most successful reconstruction work was done in societies (like Germany and Japan) that had an idea of how a democratic society could function, and the Americans rapidly let the civilian infrastructure in both nations do their own work in the aftermath of hostilities. The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe did not involve the US sending its civil servants to build new societies; rather it sent money and raw materials and let the Europeans do their own work.

The American military is extremely proficient as the invasion of Iraq demonstrates and the lopsided casualty rates inflicted on the insurgents likewise indicate. The rest of America’s governing agencies usually seem to be no more expert or efficient than most of their counterparts in other developed nations. It is hard to clone institutions in other societies under any circumstances, and harder still when one has just sacked most of the existing administrators that were already present.

So what good did the invasion do?

Well, overthrowing Saddam Hussein was a good deed under any circumstances. He does have about a million dead bodies to his discredit; was a cruel and power-hungry leader; started two regional wars, and was building a dangerous military power in an unstable part of the world (which is what Iran is also currently doing). It might have been better if Saddam was evicted in 1991 but, alas, that wasn’t in the UN’s conditions that endorsed the liberation of Kuwait.

The best summary of the good accomplished by the invasion comes from Christopher Hitchens (“A War to be Proud of” – Weekly Standard, September 5, 2005)

  1. The overthrow of Talibanism and Ba’athism, and the exposure of many highly suggestive links between the two elements of this Hitler-Stalin pact. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who moved from Afghanistan to Iraq before the coalition intervention, has even gone to the trouble of naming his organization al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. [Except, of course, that the Talibanism continues unabated — Ed].
  2. The subsequent capitulation of Qaddafi’s Libya in point of weapons of mass destruction–a capitulation that was offered not to Kofi Annan or the E.U. but to Blair and Bush.
  3. The consequent unmasking of the A.Q. Khan network for the illicit transfer of nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.
  4. The agreement by the United Nations that its own reform is necessary and overdue, and the unmasking of a quasi-criminal network within its elite. [However, UN reforms and the disgrace of Kofi Annan have yet to materialize, though the first charges for corruption in the oil for food program have only just been laid by the US].
  5. The craven admission by President Chirac and Chancellor Schröder, when confronted with irrefutable evidence of cheating … [on] solemn treaties … [by] Iran, that not even this will alter their commitment to neutralism. (One had already suspected as much in the Iraqi case.)
  6. The ability to certify Iraq as actually disarmed, rather than accept the word of a psychopathic autocrat.
  7. The immense gains made by the largest stateless minority in the region–the Kurds–and the spread of this example to other states.
  8. The related encouragement of democratic and civil society movements in Egypt, Syria, and most notably Lebanon, which has regained a version of its autonomy. [Of course, this being the Arab world, local actors are fighting hard to limit these movements with every means available.]
  9. The violent and ignominious death of thousands of bin Ladenist infiltrators into Iraq and Afghanistan, and the real prospect of greatly enlarging this number. [The war greatly facilitated Jihadist recruiting too].
  10. The training and hardening of many thousands of American servicemen and women in a battle against the forces of nihilism and absolutism, which training and hardening will surely be of great use in future combat.

Aside from the editorial remarks tossed in above, there is not much that we can add to the Hitchens list.

On the negative side of the ledger there are other points to consider. These include:

  1. An increase in Islamic support for the Jihad, and even if a substantial portion of those who volunteer to go to Iraq or Afghanistan get killed there; the cognitive dissonance which passes for critical thinking in much of the Islamic world doesn’t recognize this point.
  2. The occupation has certainly created a whole new grievance for the World’s Muslims to embrace. Even if American behavior inside Iraq was scrupulously correct (which it wasn’t, though it was of a very high standard), this would have been the case.
  3. The appearance of a retreat from Iraq – no matter what fig leaf of respectability is worn during such – will be seen by Jihadists as a great victory and will encourage their efforts elsewhere.
  4. A withdrawal from Iraq will cause a substantial opinion shift inside the US against future interventions. This will not be on the scale of American timidity in the 1970s, but will be bad enough.
  5. The withdrawal of American and British troops from Iraq will accelerate Iran’s quest for status as the leading regional power – with probably dire consequences for Israel, the Arab states, and eventually for background radiation levels across our entire planet.
  6. A full blown Iraqi civil war may no longer be avoidable – though its onset might be delayed for a while. While the Shi’ia and the Wahhabist Sunnis battle it out, watch for the Kurds to make a good bid for defacto independence.
  7. US influence in the Middle East (and much of the rest of the world) will certainly be diminished; with a corresponding retreat of the restraining influence the US has exerted on several local actors.
  8. Finally, since 2003, Iraq has been the main focus of al Qaeda; but they will be free and able to operate more widely once again as a consequence of an American retreat.

The vague but bright hopes of so many people (in both Washington and in Iraq) that attended the toppling of Saddam Hussein have been unrealized. It is still possible that the US government might pull a rabbit out of a hat with increased troop deployments, an enlarged Iraqi military, and perhaps some arm twisting on Iraq’s neighbours who have been providing sanctuary for the terrorists. It would be best to hope for a positive outcome, because otherwise the light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq today is the flare of burning cities and funeral pyres that will inevitably result from further warfare after an American withdrawal. Get used to seeing war footage on your television news; we’ll be seeing ever so much more of it in the coming years.