Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Creating a Taboo
Consequences of America's Disaster in Iraq

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 16, 2005 --  

"We will be greeted as liberators." This was the infamous prediction of top American officials in the months preceding the invasion of Iraq. Tragically, Iraq hasn't worked out that way. Signs of welcome for the Americans were tenuous and brief. Two and a half years later, insurgents are killing Americans daily, most Iraqis want Americans to withdraw, and the country is nowhere close to stability.

What went wrong?

Right from the start, America's hawks were willing to betray their own principles and take terrible risks to achieve a long-held dream of toppling the Iraqi dictator. Before the invasion, while the president was busy making a case for war based on the dubious threat of Iraqi nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs, other objectives loomed in the background. Right-wing hawks, often labeled as "neo-conservatives," advocated invading Iraq in order to create a beachhead for democracy and American values in the Middle East.

A number of these hawks had been pushing for such an invasion since well before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Many of the advocates of war had sent an open letter to President Clinton in 1998 to urge the ouster of Saddam Hussein.1 The list of people signing the document reads like a who's who of the Iraqi war effort, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol.

On the surface, the hawks' ideas sounded good -- an American-style democracy in the Middle East still sounds like a great idea. The despotic regimes that have long dominated the region have been breeding grounds for radical Islamists for many years. If Iraq were to become an open, democratic system, it could provide a model that could spread throughout the region.

But after years of bloody fighting, thousands of lives lost, and many billions of wasted dollars, that goal remains far from reality, and may be unachievable. The hawks were gravely mistaken on two counts: First, Iraq was not an easy candidate for democratization. Second, an effort to impose democratic values on another country is as likely to fail as any big government program.

Consider the facts on the first count. Despite having a widely-loathed dictator, pre-war Iraq had virtually no organized domestic opposition among its Arab citizens, and certainly no tradition of civic participation. The state effectively eliminated all domestic opponents, sending any potential political rivals to exile or an early grave. Blue sky predictions by cloistered exiles, like onetime Pentagon darling Ahmad Chalabi, were ill-informed fantasies at best and self-serving lies at worst. Iraqis were clearly unprepared to embrace democracy in a post-Saddam era.

All of these points were made by skeptics before the war -- without the benefit of hindsight -- precisely because Iraq was such a terrible candidate for democratization. Compare it, for example, to Poland in the 1980s. Like Iraq under Saddam, Poland suffered under an anti-Western dictatorship. But the Polish people not only loathed the dictatorship, they actively worked and organized against it under martial law. Nothing similar took place in pre-war Iraq. It's like the old psychiatric cliche: the patient has to want to change.

The hawks' second mistake in judgment is a matter of tragic irony. How could neoconservatives -- members of a larger conservative movement skeptical of big government programs -- think that the United States government is well-suited to impose democracy? It has long been a deeply-held conservative belief that large, patronizing government programs like housing projects, welfare, and Indian reservations are counterproductive. They breed dependence, resentment, and sometimes violence. A much bigger government program in Iraq has yielded exactly these same results on a massive scale.

The unfortunate consequence of this disaster is that American voters will be extremely reluctant to support any other so-called war of liberation, even if it has a far greater chance of success. This is a shame. While it's difficult to "impose" liberal democracy, it's very easy to tear down an obstacle to it. This happened for Poland when American pressure caused the Soviet grip to loosen in 1989. In contemporary Burma, Zimbabwe and Iran, organized democratic movements are frustrated by repressive dictatorships that could be eliminated with relative ease. When a U.S. action would serve both the interests of the American people and the democratic aspirations of a repressed citizenry, an invasion should certainly be on the table.

But so long as America's leaders are unwilling to admit making any mistakes in invading Iraq, there is no chance of assuring the public that the same mistakes will be avoided in the future. Like Vietnam, American citizens will not tolerate another Iraq. Without far more self-reflection, American-sponsored wars of liberation will be taboo for a generation to come.


1., Neoconservatism in the United States, As posted on August 15, 2005.