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Iraq: What Next?

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When the war in Iraq was commenced more than four years ago, significant optimism pervaded the United States. A majority of Americans believed that it was a war of national liberation to free the Iraqi people from the cruel tyrant Saddam Hussein. Once he was out of the picture, a democratically elected government would be established, the nation would be rebuilt, a free market economy would emerge, and Iraq would enjoy peace and prosperity. Moreover, the benefits of the invasion would not be confined to that single Arab state. The triumph of democracy in Iraq would unleash a domino effect thruout the Middle East, leading to democratic revolutions in Syria, Libya, and perhaps even Iran and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms. This development would add to the number of American allies in the region. Furthermore, all of these changes (together with the previous invasion of Afghanistan) were expected to pull the rug from under the feet of al-Qaeda, depriving that terrorist network of its home base. And we boasted that our dramatic invasion of Iraq would frighten all “cowardly” “Islamic” terrorists in the country out of their wits.


Unfortunately, the real Operation Iraqi Freedom has turned out to be much more complicated. While the overthrow of Hussein is a benefit acknowledged by Iraqis themselves, all other effects of the war have been detrimental. Bribery, intimidation, and generally low voter turnout due to violence have impeded the democratic process. Rampant corruption has led to an extremely slow pace of rebuilding and allowed gigantic American corporations to dominate the “free” market, both contributing to a high poverty rate. Instead of stimulating democratic revolutions across the Middle East, the war in Iraq has provoked an increase in anti-Americanism thruout the Middle East and the Muslim world, rendering our position there less secure. Finally, the war has set the stage for an outbreak of terrorism unrivalled anywhere else in the world.


After all of our best-laid plans failed to unfold as expected, Americans are asking the natural question, “What went wrong?” In order to answer that question, we must deal with a second related question: “Who is to blame?” Obviously the Iraqi people cannot be blamed. They desire a free, secure, and prosperous country even more than we do; they have worked hard to achieve that end; and they unanimously oppose terrorist crimes against innocent civilians. [1] The “Muslim” terrorist campaign certainly shoulders some of the blame for killing thousands of innocent human lives and damaging property. At the same time, since that terrorism is a reaction to unresolved grievances within Iraqi society, the principal blame lies with those responsible for triggering such grievances. The United States should admit to having made many errors of judgment during the prosecution of its war in Iraq.


First, we misunderstood the wishes of the Iraqi people. While we correctly assumed that they chafed under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, we incorrectly believed that they were amenable to the use of war to attain his removal. A poll by United Press International discovered that in the spring of 2003, 53 percent of Iraqis (an overwhelming number of Sunni Muslims, a slight majority of Shiite Muslims and a minority of Kurds) were strongly opposed to the American invasion. [2] War—even a just war—causes numerous problems, not the least of which is the creation of insecurity. An old Arab proverb goes, “Better a hundred years of despotism than one day of anarchy.” If the choice was between Saddam Hussein and a somewhat more lenient president, most Iraqis desired the latter; but if the choice was between Hussein and anarchy, most Iraqis preferred the continued rule of Hussein. Now nine in ten Iraqis wish American forces to leave their country within a year and a half. [3]


Second, our view of democracy was muddled and myopic: we confused the rule of the people with a particular system of government, namely the American federal republican system. We thought that the Iraqi people could not be in control of their government if they did not have our own specific type of government. In fact, each people not only have the right to govern themselves, but also to choose which form of government will represent them. Whether that form is a universal pure democracy in which all citizens participate directly in running the government; the absolute rule of a single widely trusted individual; or something in between, it represents democracy if the people have chosen it. Furthermore, we mistakenly assumed that our federal republican system would work just as well in the Middle East and in a nation with a radically different history and culture. We assumed that the people of Iraq admired our governmental system and desired to imitate it. While democracy is a universal principle, the concrete expression of that democracy varies from one country and people to another.


Third, we indulged the fantasy that what was good for big business and globalization would be good for Iraq. The invasion of companies such as Halliburton, General Electric, Bechtel and Microsoft was supposed to be a welcome replacement for the archaic, inefficient, state-owned corporations of the Baathist regime. Instead, the results have been disastrous. Iraq became a playground for oil smugglers overnight. Few areas of the state receive more than ten hours of electric service per day, and growing piles of garbage and sewage litter the major cities. The Coalition Provisional Authority’s directive requiring Iraqi farmers to purchase hybrid seeds engineered by Monsanto instead of using their own seeds from a previous year’s crop drove up the prices of produce, forcing many farmers into destitution. Another directive permitting 100 percent foreign ownership of businesses has prevented small Iraqi firms from competing in the national marketplace. Worst of all, the gap between rich and poor now resembles that of several corrupt African regimes including Zimbabwe and Sudan.


Fourth, we imagined that brute military force (i.e. “shock and awe”) would scare “Islamic” terrorists into hiding. This concept only worked during the initial invasion. As soon as our occupation of the country was complete, when President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” and challenged the terrorists to “bring it on”, they brought it on with astounding ferocity. The entire idea of all-out armed action as the sole effective response to terrorism is flawed. Some Americans would like to see our grand arsenal unleashed without mercy on Baghdad, the Sunni Triangle, and Basra to crush the “Muslim” terrorist groups once and for all. But if past experience is any guide to future events, terrorists would resume their activities the minute the dust settled—and we would have wasted more billions of taxpayer dollars. Even worse, “Islamic” terrorism and American armed retaliation have caused the progressive demolition of Iraqi infrastructure, hampering efforts to rebuild. 


Instead of brushing these errors of judgment aside, we ought to learn from them. The chief result of implementing a foreign policy grounded in these misconceptions is that, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, a rising tide of anti-Americanism has lifted all boats thruout the Middle East and Muslim world. Whereas before the invasion of Iraq public opinion of the United States in those regions was decidedly mixed, the Arab and Muslim peoples—even in Western-oriented countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Indonesia—now overwhelmingly perceive us as lacking understanding of their situation and interested only in imposing our will abroad.


What should we do next in Iraq? Is there hope for the future of the country? Diehard champions of the war have gradually reduced their expectations, conceding that to win in Iraq will mean restoration of a minimum level of security and the Iraqi people’s reasonable control of their own country. But the scale of the insurgency and the dominance of American big business guarantees that neither will happen anytime soon.


No matter how depressing the state of affairs in Iraq has become, there is indeed hope for the future. But this hope will not come from more military operations or terrorist violence. Keeping American soldiers in Iraq—however loyal and courageous they may be—for five or ten more years will not improve matters. The cycle of violence will not be shattered by the ultimate conquest of one group, but by the renunciation of force on both sides. In addition, a multitude of small locally-owned businesses would be far more beneficial to Iraq than the few American mega-corporations presently stationed there.


Finally, keeping American troops in Iraq will continue to be an exercise in futility. “Islamic” terrorism will not cease until the grievances of the terrorists are addressed. On the other hand, the Persian Gulf War of 1991 was swift and decisive because we were confronting a military enemy. Though comparisons of the present war to the Vietnam War have drawn some sharp replies, they contain a good deal of merit, especially concerning the fact that military forces cannot “defeat” guerrillas and terrorists. We should begin a complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq without further delay. Champions of the war have derided such a proposal as “cut and run”, “defeatist”, “appeasement of evil”, and “irresponsible”. It is none of those things. On the contrary, an evacuation would be an exercise in common sense.


Pope John Paul II utilized his independent position to speak out firmly and unremittingly against the war in Iraq prior to its launch. He warned that it would be an aggressive move that would not ultimately contribute to world peace, that it would exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions in the country as well as the surrounding region, and that it would worsen rather than reduce terrorism. With an eerie exactitude, the late pontiff’s predictions have been fulfilled. I have been a firm opponent of the war since early March of 2003 thanks to his courage in challenging the superpower. Seeing what has transpired in the Middle Eastern country since that date, I have no regrets for this position. However, for those who continue to support the mistaken war, regrets can only accumulate with time. 


1. “New WPO Poll: Iraqi Public Wants Timetable for US Withdrawal, But Thinks US Plans Permanent Bases in Iraq”, World Public, Jan. 31, 2006; retrieved from March 6, 2007. 

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Justin Soutar is a Catholic researcher and author. His articles about faith, the Pope & his message, pro-life and religious liberty issues, American politics and elections, terrorism, the Middle East, and other topics appear in a wide variety (more...)

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