Blaming Iraqis

What we tell ourselves about an American failure.

When we think about an exit strategy for Iraq, we are really thinking about two things. Most obviously, we’re thinking about when and where to move U.S. troops, whether and how to replace those troops with Iraqi soldiers or an international force, and other material concerns. But we’re also thinking about something less tangible. We’re thinking about what we’re going to tell ourselves in the future about this fiasco, to borrow the title of Thomas Ricks’ disturbing book about the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. We’re thinking about who or what to blame. No troop withdrawal can occur until this narrative has been assembled.

That work has now begun. In a Nov. 29 Washington Post article, Ricks and Robin Wright report that a governmental consensus is emerging that nation-building failed in Iraq because the Iraqis just weren’t up to it.

This growing belief apparently transcends ideology and political party. The Post story quoted Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., declaring at a recent congressional hearing, “We should put the responsibility for Iraq’s future squarely where it belongs—on the Iraqis.” This was seconded that same day by Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C.: “If the Iraqis are determined and decide to destroy themselves and their country, I don’t know how in the world we’re going to stop them.” A former Middle East expert for the CIA who’s advising Jim Baker’s Iraq Study Group wrote in an e-mail, “I’m tired of nit-picking over how we should bully the Iraqis into becoming better citizens of their own country.” Even neoconservative hawks, who till now have focused their criticism on the Bush administration’s unwillingness to commit sufficient troops, are cottoning to the blame-Iraqis line. “Ultimately, just like success rests with the Iraqis, so does failure,” Thomas Donnelly of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Post. This is the same Thomas Donnelly who three years ago wrote in the Weekly Standard, “We cannot afford to let Iraq fail.”

The Bush administration has yet to endorse this paradigm shift publicly, but a blame-Iraqis spirit certainly informed National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley’s eyes-only memo criticizing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. (To read Hadley’s memo, which was leaked to the New York Times, click here.) Even the normally discreet secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has grumbled,

the security situation is not one that can be tolerated and it isn’t one that has been helped by political inaction. … [T]he Iraqis as a whole, all of the government, all of the leaders, really have got to be committed to moving this process forward. They don’t have time for endless debate. …

In the Post story, Ricks and Wright point out that blaming Iraqis for their country’s near-disintegration will likely poison relations between the two nations. But it’s probably too late to stop. Perhaps it isn’t too late, though, to point out some logical deficiencies.

It’s their war. They’re the ones who have to win it or lose it. President John F. Kennedy famously stated this in a TV interview shortly before he died. He was referring, of course, to the South Vietnamese. It was undeniably true—truer, in fact, than Kennedy knew. (It’s seldom pointed out that Kennedy, a vigorous Cold Warrior, went on to say, “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That’d be a great mistake.”) The Post story has retired Army Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran, observing that the current Iraqi-bashing parallels the Vietnamese-bashing that occurred as the United States prepared to pull out of Vietnam. But there’s a crucial difference between the Vietnam War and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In Vietnam, we backed a weak but indigenous military force that was already battling the North Vietnamese. In Iraq, there was no indigenous fighting force battling Saddam’s regime, and none emerged after we got there (unless you count the Kurds, who’ve enjoyed relative success in stabilizing and governing their corner of Iraq). Overthrowing Saddam Hussein wasn’t the Iraqis’ idea; it was ours. Americans expected Iraqis to be grateful for ridding them of a bloodthirsty dictator, and for a brief time, they were. But it somehow doesn’t compute that Iraqis, following the same logic, now blame the United States for the civil war we unleashed.

Iraqis aren’t ungrateful. They’re scared. Of us. This is the most valuable lesson to be drawn from Ricks’ Fiasco, and it’s the one U.S. policymakers have been least willing to recognize. To those who endure it, the United States occupation does not feel benign. This was especially true in the early days of the occupation. In Sunni villages, it was routine for U.S. troops to round up all the men and take them prisoner; it was assumed, wrongly, that the Army would be able to determine quickly who the innocents were and set them free. Iraqi vehicles were fired upon if they drove too close to U.S. convoys. Soldiers thought nothing of holding a gun to the head of an Iraqi from whom they were trying to elicit information, pulling the trigger, and letting that Iraqi learn only after the fact that the gun wasn’t loaded. To round up certain wanted men, the Army would sometimes threaten harm to their families.

U.S. troops did these things not because they were evil. They did them because they lacked sufficient numbers to feel safe, because many of them were poorly trained, and because, Ricks suggests, the vagueness of Bush’s case linking Iraq to 9/11 encouraged grunts to think all Arabs were the enemy. But the Army’s rough treatment of Iraqi citizens led Iraqis to think Americans were evil, or at the least very dangerous. Even those who took a more benign view had to recognize that the Americans weren’t up to the job of keeping them safe from the armed thugs among them.

This is not a civilized people. No one’s actually saying this out loud—yet—but it’s widely implied. Iraq is ungovernable, this reasoning goes, because Iraqis turn out to be backward and pathologically unable to get along with one another. In the Dec. 1 Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer writes that the Maliki government’s failure “is rooted in an Iraqi political culture that makes it as yet impossible for enough of the political leadership to act with a sense of national consciousness.” What’s remarkable is that the people now saying things like this are the same ones who, early on, criticized skeptics who fretted about post-Saddam instability for failing to recognize that Iraq had a stable middle and professional class and that these stout burghers would keep the country running smoothly after Saddam got the boot. Here’s Krauthammer in Sept. 2003: “With its oil, its urbanized middle class, its educated population, its essential modernity, Iraq has a future…. Once its political and industrial infrastructures are reestablished, Iraq’s potential for rebound, indeed for explosive growth, is unlimited.” Well, which is it? Is Iraq a bourgeois nation, or a dysfunctionally tribal one? It can’t be both. More likely, it’s neither.

It may feel good for Americans to say that postwar Iraq is a failed society because of the Iraqis themselves. Ingratitude is a common lament of embittered visionaries, because it’s usually too painful to blame oneself. But it’s rarely true that the people whose lives we try to transform are at fault when we can’t transform them, and it certainly isn’t true in the case of Iraqis. We just have to live with that.