By Paolo von Schirach
December 22, 2011
WASHINGTON – “America is the sorcerer apprentice that got it truly wrong and made a huge mess in Iraq”. Worse yet, unlike the Disney story, there is no Master coming in to the rescue and fixing this. America is leaving Iraq. And this Iraq is an almost ungovernable morass, now tilting towards renewed sectarian violence. Iraq should be used as the perfect case study of “how not to do war and military occupation”. Indeed, it is hard to think of a case of bigger discrepancy between wishful thinking about one’s own power and reality on the ground, all laced with systemic errors in planning and execution. And now that America has just withdrawn its last soldier from Iraqi soil, it looks as if the perpetually immature Iraqis are back to the old script of brutalizing each other because of never resolved sectarian and ethnic issues.
The Baghdad bombings and the suicide attacks have restarted with the old enthusiasm. And so the sad irony may very well be that, after a costly, if poorly conceived and stupidly executed, occupation, America is leaving behind a very unstable country that in the worst case scenario may be dragged down by another wave of sectarian violence or, in the best case, a dysfunctional, totally ineffective government.
Optimistic US assumption about an easy “regime change” operation
It all started, (have we forgotten?) with idiotically optimistic assumptions made by the top echelons of the Bush administration. They believed, with cause, that Saddam Hussein was a menace. They also believed (wrongly) that he had dangerous weapons of mass destruction, WMDs, in his arsenal that could be easily deployed ot turned over to terrorists. In the post 9/11 environment that threat seemed really too much. Hence the “regime change” mantra. Bt while regime change in Iraq was not such a bad goal, what was really strange is that senior people in the Bush administration thought that regime change in Iraq would be really easy.
They believed (and in this they were right) that it would be easy to defeat Saddam militarily. But they also believed that the whole Saddam Hussein regime was just a veneer linked to a power structure dependent on the dictator. Take Saddam out, decapitate the regime, and the whole repressive and hated Baathist power structure would collapse. In this prediction they were spectaculrly wrong.
Easy to establish democracy in Iraq
And who take the place of the Baathist clique? Well, the good Iraqis, the pro-Western exiles eager to come back and establish a modern democracy. Besides, Iraq was swimming in it own oil. It would be easy to finance whatever transition from the old regime to this new beacon of Arab democracy relying on domestic financial resources funded by oil exports.
So, the game plan was rosy. Send in US forces to kick the door down, topple Saddam, and dissolve the Baath Party political structure. This would be quick. And the rest –building a new Iraq– would take care of itself. And so, with minimal effort, the US would eradicate the threat of WMDs from Iraq, eliminate a despot and introduce democracy in what could become a middle income Arab country that would be the new shining example of genuine Arab democracy.
The reality of the occupation
Well, we know what happened instead: collapse of the Iraqi state, civil war, sectarian conflicts, Kurdish separatism, al-Qaeda terrorism, Iranian meddling, huge losses for US forces, botched reconstruction plans, no electricity, low oil production and tremendous losss of international standing for the US.
And what happened, while it could not be anticipated in it totality, even in hindsight was quite forseable. What prompted this immense miscalculation of what it would take to bring Iraq from dictatorship to democracy? An inexcusable mixture of abysmal ignorance, lack of intelligence laced with a frightening level of hubris. The notion that Iraq could be dealt with as some sort of Wall Street corporate take over in which a few specialists direct operations and the master plan is carried out speedily was and is amazingly simplistic. But essentially this is how the whole affair was treated. And, worse yet, when things did not work out as planned, it took years and an imminent debacle to adopt a new course that brought about a modicum of (temporary, as it appears now) stability.
End of the long war, and so little to show for it
And, sadly, at the end of the military occupation, following a withdrawal timetable included in a Status of Forces Agreement, (SOFA), negotiated way back by the Bush administration, we have so little to show for this trillion dollar experiment.
True enough, there have been positive changes. Iraq has acquired democratic institutions. And this is a significant mile stone. But Iraq has yet to develop a democratic ethos. And who knows if or when it will ever acquire one. Right now, the country is an almost ungovernable mess. It may be just a coincidence, but, just as the last US soldier left, the bombings in Baghdad happily restarted. Meantime, Shia Prime Minister Nouri al -Maliki seems to be determined to silence the Sunni minority through questionable criminal charges against the most senior Sunni politician, Tarek al-Hashimi, now accused of terrorism. These accusations look a bit suspect.
US is leaving behind an unstable country
Who knows how all this will turn out. However, the fact is that the US, after almost a decade of immense efforts and untold losses, now has minimal leverage and little influence in a weakened country that may fall into chaos after all.
In the Disney story, the huge damage caused by the ill prepared sorcerer apprentice was quickly rectified by his Master. No such luck for America, Iraq and the world. We shall have to live with the consequences of an badly conceived and poorly executed military adventure that cost a fortune, while the ensuing instability may have created a security threat worse than what existed under Saddam.