Christian Caryl

The Democracy Boondoggle in Iraq

The U.S. spent billions promoting democracy in Iraq. Now the official verdict is in: It was all for nothing.


Most Americans have pretty much forgotten about the war in Iraq by now. But the comforts of obliviousness are illusory. Iraq is just too important a country for that.

The experience in Iraq is also certain to have implications for many other areas of U.S. foreign policy that aren’t necessarily confined to the Middle East. One of them involves the oft-discussed realm of "democracy promotion." American war aims in Iraq explicitly included toppling Saddam’s one-party dictatorship and installing a new, more accountable form of government that would live in peace with its own people as well as its neighbors. There’s a reason why the official American name for the war was Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

Washington took this mission seriously: "Securing and stabilizing a new democracy in Iraq and helping its economy grow were the foundational rationales behind the massive U.S. assistance effort." That quote comes from the final report, issued today (just in time for the tenth anniversary of the invasion), by the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR), a government watchdog set up by Congress to monitor how the $60 billion specifically allocated for the rebuilding of post-Saddam Iraq was actually spent. The SIGIR report, which lists a series of "lessons" for policymakers, is worth a look. (For those of you who don’t have time to read all 186 pages, the main lessons are shown on p. xii.)

Perhaps the most interesting reading comes in a section entitled "Democracy and Civil Society." Altogether, the report notes, the United States spent $1.82 billion on measures specifically designed to strengthen democratic institutions, such as support for elections, drafting a new constitution, and promoting the growth of civil society groups. (That sum doesn’t include funding for a range of other programs that arguably also had positive effects on democracy, such as efforts to improve governance, build the rule of law, and fight corruption.)

By way of comparison, the Congressional Research Service has estimated the overall direct costs of the war at $806 billion, but that doesn’t include a whole series of war-related expenditures that probably make the actual bill much higher. (Some put it as high as $2 trillion.) And, of course, we shouldn’t forget the cost in blood: Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths (with estimates ranging from 60,000 to ten times that) as well as combatant losses, including the deaths of 4,486 U.S. military personnel between 2003 and 2012.

So should Americans feel happy about the results? Well, the Special Inspector General does note that the Iraqis managed to carry off an impressive series of peaceable elections during the period in question, an achievement duly described as a "reconstruction success story." But that’s pretty much where the good news ends. The SIGIR report notes, for example, that the State Department wasn’t able to measure the impact of the grants it awarded for "democracy-building activities," which included things like offering advice to women’s groups and teaching political parties how to garner votes.

What is clear is that over half of the money spent on such activities actually went to "security and overhead costs" — a reflection of the constraints imposed by a nightmarish security situation that the occupiers and the Iraqi authorities were never quite able to tame. Elsewhere, similarly, the report bemoans the lack of "meaningful metrics" that might have helped us to understand how effective the programs actually were. As the authors put it:

Perhaps the problem lies in the nature of the program itself: how do you empirically capture the effects of civics training on the ability of a person to be a better citizen?

A good question. On the macro level, however, matters are somewhat clearer. In the most recent Freedom House survey of democracy around the world, Iraq falls unambiguously into the "Not Free" category. (Indeed, Iraq’s rating on "civil liberties" is the same as the one Freedom House gives Iran.) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now runs a staunchly authoritarian state that, while not quite as vicious as Saddam’s old dictatorship, certainly doesn’t hesitate to crack down on its opponents. The media are largely under government control, and the government is happy to swoop down and make its opponents disappear on the pretext of a vaguely defined "war on terror."

And yes, the local al Qaeda franchise is still active, blowing up people at random — mostly, it would seem, for sectarian reasons: Maliki’s ham-fisted rule is based on his roots in the country’s Shiite majority, while al Qaeda still draws upon radical elements within the disenfranchised Sunni minority.

But enmity to al Qaeda is a poor predictor of loyalty to the United States, it turns out. All that American blood and treasure expended on his country has not exactly made Maliki a proxy of Washington — far from it, indeed. Of late, Maliki has even made headlines by warning against a victory by the rebels in Syria; indeed, he’s the only Arab leader who hasn’t called upon Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign. (Iraq, it turns out, has even been offering sanctuary to Assad’s soldiers, 48 of whom were killed inside Iraq yesterday when they were attacked by Iraqi guerrillas, perhaps from Al-Qaeda.)

Such positions should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the development of Maliki’s pro-Iranian sympathies. Maliki’s party enjoyed Iranian support long before the Americans helped bring him to power in Baghdad, and in the years since he has made a name for himself as a friend of Tehran.

So went wrong? Thomas Carothers, a democracy promotion expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, ticks off three "original sins" of the U.S. democracy-building effort in Iraq. The first, he says, was a focus on the minutiae of building democratic institutions (like a constitution and a parliament) at the expense of the bigger job of redesigning the fundamental political settlement in the country — in other words, how power would actually be divided up among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Carothers compares it to building a house for a group of mutually estranged people: If you invite them to occupy the new structure without addressing the reasons for their quarrel, they’ll simply bring their fight into the house. "We were in a hurry," he says. Writing a new constitution was easier than a protracted negotiation about how to divide up power among the major constituents of Iraqi society.

A second problem was what Carothers calls the American "tendency to choose favorites and anoint them." Washington tended to prefer secular, English-speaking Iraqi politicians who seemed to be congenial to U.S. interests (starting with Pentagon protégé Ahmed Chalabi), and it did its best to put them in power and keep them there. Says Carothers: "That undercuts those who aren’t in power, who start to think that you’re not for democracy but just for your friends."

Finally, the third failing was Washington’s assumption that removing Saddam would assure the Americans of continued political influence for years to come. As Carothers notes, though, "even occupying a country doesn’t give you as much influence as you think." This error was compounded by the devastating American inability to comprehend Iraqi society in all of its complexity — or to comprehend why the occupation was so despised.

A common view holds that you can’t "install democracy at gunpoint." The Iraq War’s defenders contend that the West succeeded in doing just that that in occupied Germany and Japan in the wake of World War II. What this argument usually overlooks is that post-1945 efforts were meticulously planned, took place under good security conditions, and marshaled the expertise of an entire generation of administrators and social scientists — factors that certainly didn’t apply to the U.S. state-building exercise in Iraq after 2003. Let’s hope that Washington takes that lesson to heart. Not trying to remake other societies might be a good place to begin.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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