My Hope for Iraq Now Seems Hopeless … and Affects My Hope for Us

My hope for Iraq hasn’t come true, because we lacked the national will to make it come true. In fact, we seem to lack much of any national will anymore.

Waiting to board
(“Waiting to Board,” by The U.S. Army, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

It may be a stretch to say it was my “hope” for Iraq … it was more of a prediction, that we might develop better long-term U.S.-Iraq relations by becoming long-term partners in Iraqi (and regional) security. Back when hostilities began, I told colleagues that if we did it right — if Iraq could become a more stable area in an overall unstable region — then U.S. bases in the cradle of civilization could become sought-after duty stations after the war, the way bases in Germany and Japan eventually became prime overseas duty locations after World War 2.

We did not, as it turned out, do it right.

We can postulate many reasons for this, but I count two as large contributors. First, in the rush to Baghdad we seemed to forget that all politics is local. We did not, so far as I know, help local villages develop authentic democratic (or even semi-democratic) structures that would ultimately feed into a national political structure. It would have taken time and effort, and the speed of our advance surprised us; perhaps it gave us a sense that whatever we did would turn out well. Regardless, where we could have helped develop local input to (and thereby, potentially, support of) the eventual national government, it appears that little better than local acquiescence took hold — which is all too easy to turn to disdain and rejection.

Second, and more important to the current state of decay in Iraqi affairs, we did not have the national will to occupy Iraq for the long term, the way we occupied Germany and Japan. We defeated those two nations and we stayed in them for years afterward because it was in our best interest to do so. It was in our best interest for a number of reasons, not least because of the threat that they might fall victim to the growing menace of nearby communist powers. But the spectre of terrorism has not proved as compelling to us today as the spectre of communism was to our predecessors. So we declared disinterest in Iraq and left the Iraqis to their own devices. We left them to the encroachment of the terrorists upon their lives and freedoms. We left them, I submit, to our shame.

I hear people from time to time disparage the U.S. with statements that we shouldn’t be the world’s policeman or that we should focus on problems here at home before we get involved abroad. I wonder if those who said such things are happy now that Iraq is in chaos, and if they will be happier still when Afghanistan is again under despotic rule once our departure proves our disinterest there as well.

I have heard people wondering if the expenditure of blood and treasure in our conflict in Iraq was worth it; given how little we now have to show for it, the questioners may have a point. I haven’t heard as much wondering if the blood and treasure we spent in World War 2 was worth it, but then again that was a different kind of war and we had the will to see that fight through to the bitter end.

What does this foretell for us? Our troops may still have the will to fight, and the will to win, but so long as our people lack that will our nation’s downward spiral seems inevitable. Our obsession with our own safety and comfort, with being coddled and cared for, entertained and well-fed, will drag us down as surely as the decadence of Rome left it unable to withstand the barbarians at its gates.

We left the Iraqis vulnerable. We will leave the Afghanis vulnerable. But worse than those, we appear to be willing to leave ourselves vulnerable, too.

And that does not leave me hopeful.

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4 Responses to My Hope for Iraq Now Seems Hopeless … and Affects My Hope for Us

  1. David Fisher says:

    We should never have gone there in the first place.

    • I know many people who share that sentiment, David: some who thought so from the beginning, but more (in my experience) who supported the effort at the time and have changed their minds through the benefit of hindsight.

      I do not share that sentiment, on the principle that at the time we make a decision it can only be either right or wrong; judging a decision as good or bad based on its outcomes — and particularly whether its outcomes matched our predictions — does not change the essential rightness or wrongness of it at the time it was made. I used to tell my troops this frequently, to encourage them not to be afraid to make decisions.

      Decisions are made based on known facts, reasonable extrapolations from facts, and predictions of the results (with emotional components thrown in because we are human creatures); based on what was known at the time, what had been reasonably extrapolated from what was known, and on likely results of both action and inaction, I conclude that the decision to pursue the conflict was the right one. That it was handled poorly and turned out badly in many respects does not mean it was the wrong decision at the time it was made.

      These are points, of course, upon which reasonable people may disagree. I very much appreciate your comment!


  2. Dave Klecha says:

    Two problems with your two points, Gray. One is that the national cohesion of Iraq could not wait on the fostering of democratic impulses at lower levels. Iraqis largely voted in fairly predictable blocs. Encouraging them to choose outside of tribal or sectarian lines was a much larger task than you seem to think.

    Two, occupation is not and was not a unilateral decision. For one, a lot of the other countries that participated in the invasion and occupation elected to bring their troops home for all kinds of reasons that had nothing to do with Americans’ stomach for the fight. Far more importantly, however, the Iraqis themselves did not agree that we should stay. The Status of Forced Agreement negotiations broke down long before we actually left, and no amount of plucky American will was going to change their minds, or make us more willing to allow our troops to be tried for crimes in Iraqi courts (a definitive sticking point).

    And now that I think of it, there’s a third point to counter both: the occupation of Iraq (and Afghanistan) has been far more difficult, bloody, and costly than the occupation of Japan and Germany. How many troops did we have running combat operations in Germany in 1957? The situation was so dramatically different, it bears almost no comparison.

    Now, I guarantee that I held hope for Iraq easily the equal of yours. I made my sacrifices, brought home in my head from there the haunting memory of war. And, in fact, I still hold out hope for them, and I am not as ready as you are to call the cause of democratic self-determination lost. I do however find it appalling that people are already embarking on a baseless revision of the history of this conflict, casting the American people as care-nothing apathetics. A lot of people cared very deeply about this war. But not all of them agreed, and even if they had all been in agreement, it would not change the fact that the Iraqis did not agree, and we could hardly claim to be champions of democracy and self-determination while denying them their rights and occupying their country against clear expressions of their will.

    • Thanks very much for your thoughtful and detailed comments, Dave.

      I see your point regarding the Iraqi voting tendencies, and I didn’t mean that they should be subverted or that we should expect them to change overnight. I certainly did not mean that Iraqis should be expected to vote against their perceived best interests any more than any other voting populace does. But it seems that a bit more effort at the local and regional levels could — not necessarily would — have developed a more solid polity. It seemed unrealistic then and now to expect people whose only experience with elections had been the shams perpetrated by their dictator to apprehend a true democratic process without having any experience with such. Democracy is messy (something many of us here often seem to forget.) So while I agree that no one could afford to wait indefinitely for them to develop democratic impulses, some experience with an authentic democratic process could have provided a more solid foundation for later governance.

      I think I get your second point, but I would counter that those coalition members who pulled their troops out demonstrated even less will to carry the fight to its long conclusion than we did. It’s still a function of will. In many respects, it’s always a function of will. You are correct to point out that the SOFA was an important consideration, but even the existence of the SOFA is yet another difference between the occupation of Iraq (such as it was) compared with the occupation of Germany and Japan.

      I am more familiar with the historical case of the occupation of Japan, wherein General MacArthur was the Governor of Japan, and you are right of course that (as I mentioned) the cases of WW2 and OIF were drastically different. In addition to the difference I noted, of the looming presence of Communist power on each of their doorsteps, the Germans and Japanese — as people who had worked for years on their war efforts — over multiple wars — were beaten, and beaten soundly, whereas the Iraqi people were not themselves in such straits. We treated OIF as if it were closer akin to the liberation of France from the Germans than the defeat of Germany itself. I do not mean to imply that we needed to visit widespread destruction on the Iraqi people, but I think it is historically accurate to observe that victors can more easily impose their will when the will of the vanquished has been broken.

      I differ with your final point in that I believe it is possible to give an occupied people full rein before they are ready, just as it is possible to give an individual person too much responsibility before they are ready to accept it. It takes wisdom to know when to back off and let them suffer the natural consequences of any failures they have, especially when we are talking about groups rather than individuals. I would submit that we lacked that kind of wisdom as well as the will to stay the course.

      I salute your service and sacrifice, Dave, and thank you especially for serving on the proverbial pointy end of the spear. You are right that “a lot of people cared very deeply about this war,” on both sides of the fence. That so few of us could agree on what was in our best interest in effect makes my case that we failed to forge a consistent national will, and I fear we are unlikely ever to forge such a will absent an even greater calamity than the last one.

      Finally, I take your hope to heart. Despite the recent events that have dimmed my hope for long-term good relations, what seems hopeless is not always so. I will continue to hope that the Iraqi people will obtain, sooner and more permanently than expected, the freedom that all people should enjoy and the benefits of democratic processes and the rule of law.

      Thanks again,