Jonathan Schell, The Nation and TomDispatch.com September 5, 2003 Viewed, 9/17/2003
The basic mistake of American policy in Iraq is not that the Pentagon —
believing the fairy tales told it by Iraqi exile groups and overriding
State Department advice — forgot, when planning "regime change," to
bring along a spare government to replace the one it was smashing.
The mistake was not that, once embarked on running the place, the
administration did not send enough troops to do the job. Not that a
civilian contingent to aid the soldiers was lacking. Not that the
Baghdad museum, the Jordanian Embassy, the United Nations and Imam Ali
mosque, among other places, were left unguarded. Not that no adequate
police force, whether American or Iraqi, was provided to keep order
generally. Not that the United States, seeking to make good that lack,
then began to recruit men from the most hated and brutal of Saddam'
agencies, the Mukhabarat.
It is not that, in an unaccountable and unparalleled lapse in America'
once sure-fire technical know-how, Iraq's electrical, water and fuel
systems remain dysfunctional. Not that the administration has erected a
powerless shadow government composed in large measure of the same
clueless exiles that misled the administration in the first place.
Nor is it that the administration has decided to privatize substantial
portions of the Iraqi economy before the will of the Iraqi people in
this matter is known. Not that the occupation forces have launched
search-and-destroy operations that estrange and embitter a population
that increasingly despises the United States. Not that, throughout, a
bullying diplomacy has driven away America's traditional allies.
All these blunders and omissions are indeed mistakes of American policy,
and grievous ones, but they are secondary mistakes. The main mistake of
American policy in Iraq was waging the war at all. That is not a
conclusion that anyone should have to labor to arrive at.
Something like the whole world, including most of its governments and
tens of millions of demonstrators, plus the UN Security Council,
Representative Dennis Kucinich, Governor Howard Dean, made the point
most vocally before the fact. They variously pointed out that the Iraqi
regime gave no support to al-Qaeda, predicted that the United State
would be unable to establish democracy in Iraq by force (and that
therefore no such democracy could serve as a splendid model for the rest
of the Middle East), warned that "regime change" for purposes of
disarmament was likely to encourage other countries to build weapons of
mass destruction, and argued that the allegations that Iraq already had
weapons of mass destruction and was ready to use them at any moment
(within forty-five minutes after the order was delivered, it was said)
All these justifications for the war are now in history's ash heap,
never to be retrieved — adding a few largish piles to the mountains of
ideological claptrap (of the left, the right and what have you) that
were the habitual accompaniment of the assorted horrors of the twentieth
Recognition of this mistake — one that may prove as great as the
decision to embark on the Vietnam War — is essential if the best (or at
any rate the least disastrous) path out of the mess is to be charted.
Otherwise, the mistake may be compounded, and such indeed is the
direction in which a substantial new body of opinion now pushes the
In this company are Democrats in Congress who credulously accepted the
Bush administration's arguments for the war or simply caved in to
administration pressure, hawkish liberal commentators in the same
position and a growing minority of right-wing critics.
They now recommend increasing American troop strength in Iraq. Some
supported the war and still do. "We must win," says Democratic Senator
Joseph Biden, who went on "Good Morning America" to recommend
dispatching more troops. His colleague Republican John McCain agrees.
The right-wing Weekly Standard is of like mind. Others were doubtful
about the war at the beginning but think the United States must "win"
now that the war has been launched.
The New York Times, which opposed an invasion without UN Security
Council support, has declared in an editorial that "establishing a free
and peaceful Iraq as a linchpin for progress throughout the Middle East
is a goal worth struggling for, even at great costs." And, voicing a
view often now heard, it adds, "We are there now, and it is essential to
stay the course." Joe Klein, of Time magazine, states, "Retreat is not
"Winning," evidently, now consists not in finding the weapons of ma
destruction that once were the designated reason for fighting the war,
but in creating a democratic government in Iraq — the one that will
serve as a model for the entire Middle East. Condoleezza Rice has called
that task the "moral mission of our time." Stanford professor Michael
McFaul has even proposed a new Cabinet department whose job would be
"the creation of new states." The Pentagon's job will be restricted to
"regime destruction;" the job of the new outfit, pursuing a "grand
strategy on democratic regime change," will be, Houdini-like, to pull
new regimes out of its hat.
On the other hand, the Center for Strategic and International Studies,
which recently produced a report on the situation in Iraq, thinks a big
part of the problem is bad public relations and counsels "an intense
communications and marketing campaign to help facilitate a profound
change in the Iraqi national frame of mind."
These plans to mass-produce democracies and transform the mentalities of
whole peoples have the look of desperate attempts — as grandiose a
they are unhinged from reality — to overlook the obvious: First, that
people, not excluding Iraqis, do not like to be conquered and occupied
by foreign powers and are ready and able to resist; second, that
disarmament, which is indeed an essential goal for the new century, can
only, except in the rarest of circumstances, be achieved not through war
but through the common voluntary will of nations. It is not the
character of the occupation, it is occupation itself that in a multitude
of ways the Iraqis are rejecting.
The practical problem of Iraq's future remains. The Iraqi state has been
forcibly removed. That state was a horrible one; yet a nation needs a
state. The children must go to school; the trains must run; the museum
must open; murderers must be put in jail. But the United States,
precisely because it is a single foreign state, which like all state
has a highly self-interested agenda of its own, is incapable of
providing Iraq with a government that serves its own people. The United
States therefore must, to begin with, surrender control of the operation
to an international force.
It will not suffice to provide "UN cover" for an American operation, a
the administration now seems to propose. The United States should
announce a staged withdrawal of its forces in favor of and in
conjunction with whatever international forces can be cobbled together.
It should also (but surely will not) provide that force with about a
hundred billion or so dollars to do its work — a low estimate of what
is needed to rebuild Iraq.
Biden says we must win the war. This is precisely wrong. The United
States must learn to lose this war — a harder task, in many ways, than
winning, for it requires admitting mistakes and relinquishing attractive
fantasies. This is the true moral mission of our time (well, of the next
few years, anyway).
The cost of leaving will certainly be high, but not anywhere near a
high as trying to "stay the course," which can only magnify and postpone
the disaster. And yet — regrettable to say — even if this difficult
step is taken, no one should imagine that democracy will be achieved by
this means. The great likelihood is something else — something worse:
perhaps a recrudescence of dictatorship or civil war, or both. An
interim period — probably very brief — of international trusteeship i
the best solution, yet it is unlikely to be a good solution. It i
merely better than any other recourse.
The good options have probably passed us by. They may never have
existed. If the people of Iraq are given back their country, there isn't
the slightest guarantee that they will use the privilege to create a
liberal democracy. The creation of democracy is an organic process that
must proceed from the will of the local people. Sometimes that will i
present, more often it is not. Vietnam provides an example. Vietnam
today enjoys the self-determination it battled to achieve for so long;
but it has not become a democracy.
On the other hand, just because Iraq's future remains to be decided by
its talented people, it would also be wrong to categorically rule out
the possibility that they will escape tyranny and create democratic
government for themselves. The United States and other countries might
even find ways of offering modest assistance in the project; it i
beyond the power of the United States to create democracy for them.
The matter is not in our hands. It never was.
Jonathan Schell, the Harold Willens Peace Fellow of the Nation
Institute, is the author of the recently published "The Unconquerable
World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People" (Metropolitan).
Reprinted with permission from the September 22, 2003 issue of The
Nation. Read more at TomDispatch.com.