How it all went wrong in Iraq


Senior Member
Jan 20, 2006
New Orleans, LA/Cambridge, MA

The Economist said:
“NEMESIS” was the word The Economist printed on its front cover four years ago, when jubilant Iraqis, aided by American soldiers, hauled down the big statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square. For a moment it looked as though all the fears that had accompanied the build-up to the American-led invasion had been groundless. The defeat of Iraq's army in three weeks turned out to be exactly the “cakewalk” that some of the war's boosters predicted. And in many places Iraqis did indeed greet the American soldiers as liberators, just as Ahmed Chalabi, Iraq's best-known politician-in-exile, had promised they would.

How different it looks four years on. The invasion has been George Bush's nemesis as well as Saddam's. The lightning conquest was followed by a guerrilla and then a civil war. Talk of victory has given way to talk about how to limit a disaster. The debacle has cut short the careers of Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair, poisoned the Bush presidency and greatly damaged the Republican Party (see article). More important, it has inflicted fear, misery and death on its intended beneficiaries. “It is hard to imagine any post-war dispensation that could leave Iraqis less free or more miserable than they were under Mr Hussein,” we said four years ago. Our imagination failed. One of the men who took a hammer to Saddam's statue told the world's media this week that although Saddam was like Stalin, the occupation is worse.
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What went wrong? The most popular answer of the American neoconservatives who argued loudest for the war is that it was a good idea badly executed. Kenneth Adelman, he of the “cakewalk”, has since called the Bush national-security team “among the most incompetent” of the post-war era. Others also blame the Iraqis for their inability to accept America's gift of freedom. “We have given the Iraqis a republic and they do not appear able to keep it,” lamented Charles Krauthammer, a columnist for the Washington Post.

That excuse is too convenient by half: it is what the apologists for communism said too. But there can be no denying that the project was bungled from the start. Western intelligence failed to discover that Saddam had destroyed all his weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the removal of which was the main rationale for the war. However, the incompetence went beyond this. The war was launched by a divided administration that had no settled notion of how to run Iraq after the conquest. The general who warned Congress that stabilising the country would require several hundred thousand troops was sacked for his prescience.

Mr Rumsfeld's one big idea seemed to be that it was not the job of the armed forces he was “transforming” to become policemen, social workers or nation- builders. As a result, he sent too few and they did nothing to prevent looters from picking clean all Iraq's public buildings the moment the regime collapsed. “Stuff happens,” was the defence secretary's comment, a phrase used later as the title of an anti-war play in London's West End.

America's plans for Iraq's political transition were also rudimentary, to the extent that they existed at all. The Pentagon wanted Mr Chalabi and his fellow exiles put swiftly in charge. The State Department thought an American administration would have to be installed. State had organised a pre-invasion Future of Iraq project, but the Pentagon declined to adopt its ideas. Several knowledgeable State Department Arabists were prevented from going to Iraq because they were deemed ideologically unsound. Jay Garner, an amiable general called in from retirement to manage the transition under an understaffed ad hoc body known as the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, received no intelligible instructions from Washington, and baffled the liberated Iraqis in his turn. “You're in charge,” he told a gathering of 300 or so mystified tribal leaders and exiles who attended a conference soon after his arrival, hoping to discover what the future held under Iraq's new rulers.

When the Americans discovered the obvious—that Iraqis could not take charge of a state whose institutions had collapsed—the amiable General Garner was called home and replaced by a viceroy. Paul Bremer set up his Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) inside one of Saddam's Baghdad palaces, at the heart of a fortified “green zone” cut off by tall blast walls from the life of the city. Unlike his predecessor he had firm views about what needed to be done, views which in short order produced big mistakes. He disbanded the Iraqi army and so put tens of thousands of resentful, jobless men with military training on the streets. And he turfed thousands of Baath Party members out of the bureaucracy, thereby depriving many ministries of their only trained staff.

In the end, the Americans did preside over a political transition of sorts. The CPA handed sovereignty to an interim government under Iyad Allawi, selected on the advice of the United Nations. Then, in 2005, came a year of elections. In January Iraqis voted in their first free election for a new National Assembly; they voted again in October in a referendum on a new constitution; and they voted in December to elect yet another new National Assembly under the new constitution's rules. If democratic politics were about nothing more than casting votes, Iraq would have the hang of it by now.

Unfortunately, few things are more useless than a government that cannot govern. And Iraq's government can't. For although Iraqis voted in high numbers, they voted along ethnic lines, and this produced an impasse. The outnumbered Sunnis feel locked out of a new Iraq dominated by Shias. The victorious Shia block, the United Iraqi Alliance, is itself so divided that it took its factions five months after the election of December 2005 to choose a prime minister. And his authority is limited. Nuri al-Maliki depends for a majority on members loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical anti-American Shia cleric, with a powerful militia at his disposal. The prime minister can deploy patronage, but this has made his administration into little more than a spoils system in which the individual parties, many with their own militias, use control of government ministries to extract resources for themselves.
The Economist said:
The main reason for the government's inability to govern, however, is that it cannot stem a tidal wave of criminal and political violence. The Kurds are doing nicely in their northern enclave and much of the south is calm enough. But Baghdad and central Iraq are tangled in multiple conflicts. Many Sunnis have taken up arms against the new Shia-dominated order. Al-Qaeda is running a jihad against the Americans and Shias alike. By killing Shias, especially after blowing up their Askariyah shrine last February, al-Qaeda has succeeded in provoking a torrent of revenge killings. In places, in the name of “resistance” or Islam, Shia militias also attack American soldiers. A poll this week found that half of all Iraqis consider such attacks acceptable (see table). It seems extraordinary, till you remember how at a stroke the scandal of Abu Ghraib prison turned the liberators into torturers in the eyes of Iraqis. The prevalence of violence and the absence of law erodes the legitimacy of the elected government and makes it almost impossible to rebuild an economy that even before the war had been prostrated by a dozen years of UN sanctions.
What now?

It took a long time for the White House to acknowledge the bleak reality. But December's report to the new Democrat-controlled Congress of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan committee chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, forced a change. Its succinct first sentence—“The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating”—made it impossible for Mr Bush to keep on saying with jutted jaw that fortitude alone could retrieve the situation. Nor, however, could he accept the group's recommendation to begin to withdraw troops and launch “a robust diplomatic effort”. That would look too much like declaring defeat and going cap in hand to America's regional enemies, Iran and Syria, to sue for peace. So instead of bringing the boys home, Mr Bush decided to send more.

What to make of the “surge” now starting in Baghdad? It is reasonable for sceptics to argue that Mr Bush is merely clinging to existing policy until he leaves office, when a new president will have to clean up the mess he has made. On its own, adding between 20,000 and 30,000 American troops to the 130,000 already there hardly seems likely to turn Iraq around. All the same, some of the military architects of the surge are true believers. This is not just reinforcement, they say, but a long-overdue reversal of the whole flawed post-invasion strategy Mr Rumsfeld left behind.

From the start, the former defence secretary was convinced that the job of securing and rebuilding Iraq belonged to Iraqis. Even after his grudging acceptance that a widespread Sunni insurgency was indeed under way, American troops concentrated on minimising their own casualties while training Iraq's ragged new army to put it down. This was well beyond its ability. In recent months, since it has become clearer that parts of Mr Maliki's Shia-dominated coalition as well as parts of the police are themselves responsible for murdering many Sunnis, the strategy has made even less sense. In such circumstances, arming a government can be tantamount to taking sides in a civil war—and reducing the incentive of the side you back to make concessions for peace.

Henceforth, say the surgers, American troops will do what they should have been doing all along according to classic counter-insurgency theory. Under the direction of an energetic new commander, General David Petraeus, they will leave their bases and plant themselves in the heart of Baghdad's neighbourhoods in order to give Iraqis the security they crave. And security, they argue, is the key to everything else. Only when the killing declines will Iraq's new government be able to buttress its legitimacy, suck support away from the militias and rebuild the economy.

A few weeks into the surge, it is too early to assess the validity of this beguiling hypothesis. The number of ethnic killings by Shia gangs is reported to be falling, but Sunni car- and suicide-bombers are still killing Baghdadis in their mosques and markets. The obvious difficulty, however, is that even if the Americans have at last lighted on the right approach, General Petraeus may not be given the time to see the job through. That will almost certainly be the case if politics in both Washington and Baghdad continue to move against him.

The Democrats in Congress do not want to be seen pulling the rug from under a successful new commander. But nor are they eager to squander more lives and money on a war that many voters think America has already lost. The mood in Washington might be changed by evidence of political progress in Baghdad: the point of the surge is to stabilise the capital and so buy time for Iraq's politicians to reach a power-sharing agreement that might suck some poison out of the sectarian war. But are they capable of making such a deal? Do they even want to?

Iraq's cabinet agreed last month on how to share oil revenues between the regions. In public utterances Mr Maliki is careful to say all the right things about national reconciliation. These are encouraging pointers. The trouble is that Americans who listen in to his government's internal chatter are horrified by what they hear. Some conclude that the Shias have no real intention to share power, only to string America along while using its firepower to destroy rivals and entrench their own dominion. It is also uncertain whether the politicians who claim to speak for the Sunnis in the National Assembly are close enough to the insurgents to make them stop fighting even in the event of a political settlement. In short, time may show that the democratic structure the Americans worked so hard to install can neither run Iraq nor reconcile its warring clans.

That would mark Mr Bush's final failure The chief reason he gave for the invasion of 2003 (and the only one this newspaper accepted) was fear of Iraq's WMD. But this, admitted Paul Wolfowitz, then Mr Rumsfeld's deputy, was only “the one issue that everyone could agree on”. Others included a feeling after September 11th 2001 that America should vanquish any enemy that dared to defy it, and a belief that by turning Iraq into a democracy America could transform the Middle East, ending the rule of the autocrats, draining the swamp in which terrorism festered and promoting an Arab peace with Israel.
What next?

When the WMD turned out not to exist, Mr Bush inflated this “freedom agenda”. In his inauguration speech in 2005, after his re-election, he connected Iraq to America's “great liberating tradition” in foreign policy. Free elections had been held not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. The “Cedar Revolution” turfed Syria's army out of Lebanon and American nagging resulted in an Egyptian presidential election that looked marginally less rigged than usual. But 2005 was the high point. It is now absurd to expect Iraq to serve as a democratic inspiration—it has done more to inspire jihad. As for proving American might, the overstretched superpower looks increasingly like a supplicant, less prone to lecture Arabs on governance than to seek help from former enemies once consigned like Syria and Iran to the “axis of evil”.

Mr Bush's rejection of the Baker-Hamilton report should not have been a surprise. Transparently admitting defeat would have forced America to negotiate from weakness. The surge, in contrast, may turn out to be a case of sauter pour mieux reculer: a way to strengthen America's hand before Mr Bush, or more probably his successor, co-ordinates an eventual exit with Iraq and its neighbours.
The Economist said:
The surge in Iraq has coincided with tougher action against Iran. America has sent an extra carrier to the Gulf and is helping to pilot a second sanctions resolution against Iran through the UN Security Council. But it is at the same time putting machinery in place that could be used to make a bargain. Officials from the two countries talked early this month in Baghdad and more senior ones expect to get together at a follow-up next month.

It seems odd after more than quarter of a century of rivalry for America to expect any help from Iran. The Islamic Republic is the big winner from Mr Bush's war. But neither Iran nor any regional power apart from al-Qaeda has an interest in the complete collapse of Iraq. The Iranians in particular worry about what the Americans might do in such a circumstance. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, calls America “a wounded tiger”, all the more dangerous for its sudden weakness. Such has been Mr Bush's failure that the autocrats of the Middle East say that they are trying to rescue Iraq from America and America from itself. It really is a debacle.
If only

It is not enough to say with the neocons that this was a good idea executed badly. Their own ideas are partly to blame. Too many people in Washington were fixated on proving an ideological point: that America's values were universal and would be digested effortlessly by people a world away. But plonking an American army in the heart of the Arab world was always a gamble. It demanded the highest seriousness and careful planning. Messrs Bush and Rumsfeld chose instead to send less than half the needed soldiers and gave no proper thought to the aftermath.

What a waste. Most Iraqis rejoiced in the toppling of Saddam. They trooped in their millions to vote. What would Iraq be like now if America had approached its perilous, monumentally controversial undertaking with humility, honesty and courage? Thanks to the almost criminal negligence of Mr Bush's administration nobody, now, will ever know.

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