Terms of Engagement

A Little Humility

If Iraq has taught us anything, let it be this.

Getty Images
Getty Images

President Barack Obama has treated Iraq like a gambling debt inherited from a reckless uncle, steadily whittling down his exposure until he could finally walk away with a sigh of relief. That moment appeared to arrive earlier this month, when the U.S. withdrew its last combat troops from Iraq and the country’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, visited the White House, where Obama pronounced Iraq "sovereign, self-reliant, and democratic." Alas, events quickly proved that Iraq wasn’t democratic, and possibly not self-reliant either. A better analogy for this tormented country might be the Shakespearean ghost that cannot be willed away.

In recent days, in fact, Iraq has oscillated between farce and tragedy. Maliki had no sooner returned to Baghdad than he issued an arrest warrant for his own vice president, Tareq Hashemi, on charges that he used his guards as a death squad. Hashimi promptly took refuge in Kurdistan, and Maliki demanded that the Kurds hand him over or face unspecified "problems." He also threatened to evict his coalition partners if they didn’t end a boycott of the government, which was itself a consequence of his refusal to share power with them. And then came a dreadful reminder of Iraq’s enduring vulnerability — a wave of coordinated bombings in Baghdad that killed at least 63 people and bore the earmarks of al Qaeda.

Iraq has endured so much violence, and so much political chaos, that this week’s calamities do not, by themselves, endanger the state. A senior administration official I spoke to insisted that this "latest spasm of political immaturity" was par for the course, and pointed out that Maliki’s political opponents still "see more advantage in sticking with the system than walking away." Vice President Joe Biden, who more or less owns this unenviable portfolio, has been on the phone with Maliki and other senior officials, urging them to settle their differences in private, rather than in the press. But this official conceded that Iraq could descend back into sectarian warfare "if they don’t reel this in."

The death toll in Iraq, which has now reached almost 4,500 American soldiers and over 100,000 Iraqis, as well as the cost in money and national prestige, is so staggering that no outcome, no matter how positive, could justify the original decision to go to war. But this week’s events also show how unlikely it is that the war will ever come to be seen as a "transformational" event in the Middle East, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently suggested it still might. Iraq is likely to remain a "sovereign" state, in Obama’s phrase, but also a deeply riven, violent, and quite possibly authoritarian one. It will be for other countries in the region to demonstrate that democracy and tolerance of difference is possible in the Arab world.

As the United States leaves this wreckage behind, or tries to, we need to ask, one last time, whether it could have been otherwise. Was the war itself the original sin, or was it the conduct afterwards? What if we had done … what? In his 2006 book, Squandered Victory, Larry Diamond, a democracy promotion scholar who worked in Iraq (and whom I cited last week), confronts the original sin argument by asserting that "even with an unpopular occupation, the prospect for democracy was not foreclosed." The litany of subsequent mistakes Diamond cites is bottomless, and familiar: too few troops, too little civilian authority, criminally negligent planning, marginalization of the Sunnis, the dissolution of the Iraqi army, wholesale "de-Baathification," a compromised constitution, and above all the refusal to swiftly hand power over to an elected government. Each of these mistakes conditioned the environment in such a way as to limit the effect of subsequent positive developments, including the anti-extremist uprising by the "Sons of Iraq" in 2007, and Maliki’s bold decision to take on Shiite militias in 2009.

I would like to believe this theory, and for several reasons. First, I don’t accept the premise that American power is a blunderbuss that is destined to do harm rather than good. I’m glad the United States and the West acted in Libya, Bosnia, and Kosovo. While of course you can’t "impose" democracy, whether through force or even coercive diplomacy, democracies have arisen in the aftermath of interventions — not just in Germany and Japan, but in Panama and Grenada (not exactly commensurate examples, I acknowledge). It is profoundly in the U.S. interest to do what it can to nurture decent governance or even basic justice in places where Islamic extremism has taken hold, or is likely to. And we know now that the truism that "the Arab world isn’t ready for democracy" is an excuse offered by, and for, Arab dictators.

I would like to believe it could have been otherwise in Iraq, but I think this modestly hopeful premise underestimates Iraq’s afflictions and overestimates America’s capacity to cure them. Iraq is not "the Arab world." The Arab Spring has made the most progress in relatively monolithic states like Tunisia and Egypt, and has met with the most violent resistance in places where a minority controls the majority population, as in Syria and Bahrain. Thomas Carothers, a democracy scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, told me that he calls this "the 80-20 problem." Democratization, he points out, is fundamentally about power-sharing; and minorities almost never give up power without a fight. Iraq’s Sunni minority had clung to power through unexampled brutality over the half-century before the U.S. invasion. Carothers argues that even a larger American troop presence, and a more focused political role, would have been unlikely to have stemmed the rise of the Shiite militias of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sunni extremists who provoked a civil war in 2006. The increasingly ugly infighting between Maliki, the Shiite leader, and his Sunni opponents, is another symptom of the 80-20 problem.

In the months before the war, liberal interventionists (like me) believed that Iraq could be a just war if the United States accepted the burden of post-war nation-building and political stewardship — and then bitterly criticized President George W. Bush for failing to do so. Carothers’ point — which he and others made at the time — was that you weren’t likely to succeed by fashioning democratic institutions and then training Iraqis to run them, as liberals hoped. If you took power from the minority and handed it to the majority, the minority wouldn’t accept it without being cut into the deal — and perhaps not even then. In the event, Sunnis bitter at their fall from power boycotted Iraq’s first elections, American administrators helped empowered a new Shiite leadership, and today Maliki has declared war on the leading Sunni members of his government.

Perhaps, then, the lesson of Iraq is not, "You must accept the burden of nation-building, with all it implies," but rather, "Even conscientious nation-building won’t solve the zero-sum problem of political power." We should think long and hard about that before, say, we intervene in Syria. But I would suggest a yet broader moral: "We are ignorant." The world is so much more complicated, and so much more refractory, than we wish it to be; and our wishes all too often govern our understanding. It is the combination of limited understanding with immense power that ensures we will visit some measure of tragedy upon the world, and upon ourselves. It can’t be otherwise, unless we choose to withdraw from the world, or to watch the worst misfortunes from a safe distance. We will act, and we will do harm despite ourselves. It behooves us, then, to act with humility, and to try as best we can not to confuse what we wish to be with what can be.

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