In a number of specific respects, the United States has failed in Iraq. We failed to plan effectively for the postwar era. We did not put in nearly enough troops to secure Iraq once Baghdad fell. Despite numerous warnings, we failed to anticipate the rise of an insurgency mobilizing both secular nationalist and religious fundamentalist sentiments, with extensive funding and support by surviving Baathist diehards. We left the borders wide open to infiltration by foreign jihadists who have come to offer themselves up for suicidal terror in Iraq, or—as we have learned recently from a leaked CIA report—to be trained for terrorist attacks on Europe and the United States. We didn’t secure the weapons depots.
The biggest American mistake in Iraq was to have established an occupation administration of the country. Iraqis are a fiercely proud and nationalistic people. By operating in a manner that was so often arrogant, imperial, ill-informed, isolated from Iraqi realities, and simply incompetent, we lost the confidence of the Iraqi public, and we fed a violent resistance that was probably inevitable but became much more extensive, deadly, and crippling as a result of our mistakes. Most Iraqis believe we are there for our own strategic interests—to secure access to Iraq’s vast reserves of oil and to establish a permanent military foothold in the region—not to build democracy.
Although America’s postwar engagement in Iraq has been badly bungled, and in this sense our stunning military victory has been squandered, the cause of building a more decent (and hopefully democratic) political order in Iraq is not lost. One very positive recent development is that Sunni tribal, political, and religious groups have been organizing to come into the political process; they do not intend to repeat their calamitous mistake of January, when they boycotted the elections and disenfranchised themselves. The Bush administration has been right to pressure the Iraqi transitional government to bring the Sunnis into the constitution-making process and give them a stake in the political future. But we need to build more boldly on this initiative.
If Iraq is going to be stabilized, and if democracy is to have any chance of emerging, the terrorist and insurgent violence must be diminished. As senior American military officers keep insisting, this cannot be done through military and intelligence means alone. It requires political steps as well to widen the circle of Iraqis who have a stake in peace and order, and to take the nationalist steam out of the insurgency.
Four steps are now urgently needed. First, the Bush administration must declare that the United States will not seek permanent military bases in Iraq. Its refusal to do so has aroused Iraqi suspicions that we seek long-term domination of their country. Second, we should declare some sort of time frame (but not a rigid deadline) by which we think we can withdraw militarily—if Iraqi groups that are supporting or tolerating the violence will instead help build the new political order. Third, we need to talk directly to the (largely Sunni) political groups connected to the insurgency, some of which have been seeking to talk to the United States for more than a year now. Fourth, we need an honest broker to help mediate these discussions and build confidence in the process. This role could be played by a small international contact group consisting of a high-level representative of the United Nations and perhaps one or two of the European ambassadors now resident in Baghdad.
Both the terrorist violence and the postwar political mobilization have deepened ethnic tensions and insecurities in Iraq. Ultimately, an inclusive and federal democracy is the best way of containing these tensions. Even if we take the above steps, there is no guarantee that such a viable democracy will emerge in Iraq. However, if we do not depart more sharply from our imperial posture in Iraq, we are doomed to fail.