Our Second False Premise
By now, virtually every American knows that we invaded Iraq on a false premise. We thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, but he did not.
The falsity of that premise provoked an endless steam of recriminations. Yet besides remonstrate, there is little that anyone can do about it now. We can’t correct our error by “un-invading” Iraq. Iraq has changed irrevocably as a result of our invasion, and it’s far too late to unscramble the egg.
Yet a second false premise—one more subtle and insidious—pervades our “work” in Iraq even to this day. Unlike our decision to invade, it might be correctable.
The second false premise is natural for us Americans. We thought the Iraqis, like us, want democracy and are ready to die for it. All we had to do, the notion went, was depose Saddam and provide a little training, help and guidance. Then Iraq’s people would lay down their thousand-year-old grudges, forget three decades of brutalization under Saddam, renounce their religious allegiances, and become a democratic federal republic much like Switzerland.
This notion was and is preposterous. Yet it is nonetheless the fundamental premise on which the war has been and is being fought. It has influenced, if not controlled, every major strategic and tactical blunder since the war began.
Why did Donald Rumsfeld send too few troops to do the job? Because he thought that peace and stability, if not democracy, would follow quickly after Saddam’s fall. Rumsfeld’s peculiar brand of modern blitzkrieg was a military success. Our capable forces made short work of Saddam’s defense, and his statue fell in record time. Capturing Saddam himself took longer, but by the time he fell into Coalition hands his regime was powerless. Many of its principals had been captured or were in hiding. Yet Rumsfeld failed to anticipate or understand the aftermath of Saddam’s fall and so failed repeatedly to adjust force levels to the needs of insurgency, urban chaos, and now civil war.
Low troops levels were not the only strategic blunder to arise from this second false premise. At first we sent a capable former general, Jay Garner, to act as “proconsul” in Iraq. Just as he was settling in and beginning to make headway, despite an inexplicably late start, we pulled the rug out from under him, brought him home, and replaced him with Paul Bremer. Bremer then made the next two most serious strategic mistakes, disbanding the Iraqi Army and embarking on a de-Baathification purge. Both blunders made enemies of any Sunni who were not so already. They also created a whole underclass of young men with weapons, military training and nothing to do.
What justified these gross mistakes? Again, the answer is the same false premise: that democracy was just around the corner. Bush and Rumsfeld replace Garner with Bremer because they wanted the appearance of a civilian, not a military, occupation authority. For the same reason, they steadfastly refused to use the term “occupation,” giving their public pronouncements an Orwellian cast. Disbanding the army and the Baathist purge were simply corollaries of this basic policy: out with the military and in with Iraqi civilian government, which would quickly take democratic control. The fact that Iraq had seen nothing like a Western politician in three decades, if ever, was a minor inconvenience worthy of little attention.
The same false premise underlies strategic and tactical error today. True, Iraq has had three elections. True, Maliki is a prime minister elected by a democratic process. But that democratic process was a charade. Only the Kurds or Shia voted willingly, and each voted for its own slate. Collectively they gave us Al-Jaafari, whom we didn’t like, so we browbeat them and got Al-Maliki. Throughout this process the Sunni participated only begrudgingly, knowing their side would lose, and their representatives have been frozen out of real political compromise.
The Sunni were undisputed, absolute and brutal rulers of Iraq for over three decades. An invasion by foreign powers ended their rule. We disbanded their army and purged their ruling party from the government and most suitable employment. Now we expect them to “play nice” with their erstwhile subjects who brought this abrupt reversal of fortune upon them, profiting from the assistance and occasional brutality of foreign invaders.
The goal of the Sunni insurgency had and has nothing to do with democracy. As an unnamed Sunni leader said to an American official nearly a year after our invasion, “you don’t understand. We want to run Iraq.” *
What is so astounding about our leap of faith in democracy arising from oppression and the ashes of war is how it contradicts our own history. We Americans have had direct experience in rebuilding democratic society after an invasion. We call it Reconstruction.
General Sherman’s invasion of Georgia was far more careless of civilian infrastructure than our Invasion of Iraq, but the immediate aftermath of the Civil War was more enlightened. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant at Appomattox was a model of gentlemanly decorum and soldierly respect, in which the rebels were allowed to keep their dignity. Lee’s honor and the gentlemanly surrender helped insure, among other things, that there would be no plans for an insurgency like those that Saddam left behind. There was no official demonization of enemies, no show trials and no executions of rebel leaders. General Lee and Jefferson Davis lived out their lives in peace.
During the next few decades, federal policy vacillated between the punitive goals of the Radical Republicans and the more lenient policies of the Democrats. Yet despite the South’s utter defeat and surrender, plus intermittent attempts at an enlightened occupation, no policy could contain the cultural fallout from our own bloodiest war. The South fell prey to the lawless insurgency of the Ku Klux Klan and an epidemic of lynching. The relative stability of apartheid under Jim Crow laws followed, and it took nearly a century to erase. Federal troops had to “re-invade” the South in 1957 and again in 1963 in order to enforce federal laws mandating integrated schooling.
It is now over 141 years since the guns fell silent at Appomattox. The whole point of our Civil War was to abolish slavery and ultimately make our African-Americans equal citizens with the rest of us. Today a superbly qualified congressman named Harold E. Ford, Jr. is seeking a hotly contested Senate seat in Tennessee. If he wins, he will be the first African-American senator from the South since the short-lived Reconstruction.
Ford is so light skinned that one has to know his biography to understand that he is “black.” Both he and his opponent have promised that racism is no part of their campaigns. We will see. If Ford wins, we may be able to say that the Civil War and Reconstruction are relaxing their grip on what used to be called a “border” state, if not the Deep South, after nearly a century and a half.
Unlike Iraq, both the South and the North were founded on democracy and reason. Unlike Iraq, both had a tradition of democracy dating back Lincoln’s “four score and seven years,” plus a deeper tradition going back to the Magna Carta in 1215. Unlike the Sunnis in Iraq, the South in our Civil War also knew political compromise. Yet overcoming the cultural fallout of the war and the invasion of the South has taken us 141 years and counting. What ever possessed us to think the Iraqis, with no democratic tradition and little taste for compromise, could make a similar transition in three years?
What Iraqis want most is not democracy, but the feeling that they can walk out their front doors without fearing for their lives. According to U.N. figures, over 300,000 have fled to ethically safe areas internally, and another 600,000 have fled the country entirely. The political stalemate in Iraq, now going on six months under the Maliki government alone, attests to the prospects for real political compromise in a war-torn land riven by millennial hatreds.
Successful leadership requires facing facts. Abraham Lincoln waited to issue the Emancipation Proclamation until he could foresee the South’s military defeat. He did so not because he tolerated slavery, but because he saw that a premature attempt at emancipation would only make the South fight harder, while proving a cruel deception to slaves “freed” on paper alone.
We will have troops on the ground in Iraq for decades unless we likewise face reality. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that the Iraqis want what we want and are ready to die for it. If Iraqis die for an abstraction, it will be loyalty to sect or tribe or the words of the Koran, not democracy. Until we internalize that unpleasant reality, our policy in Iraq will continue to flounder.
* Bob Woodward, State of Denial 296 (Simon & Schuster 2006).