How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?

I underestimated the self-centeredness and sectarianism of the ruling elite and the social impact of 30 years of extreme dictatorship.

Editor’s Note: To mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Slate has asked a number of writers who originally supported the war to answer the question, “Why did we get it wrong?” We have invited contributions from the best-known “liberal hawks,” many of whom participated in two previous Slate debates about the war, the first before it began in fall of 2002, the second in early 2004. We will be publishing their responses through the week. Read  the rest of the contributions.

Kanan Makiya chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Portrait of Saddam Hussein

I know that I got many things wrong in the run-up to the 2003 war, but, in spite of everything, I still do not know how to regret wanting to knock down the walls of the great concentration camp that was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The nature of political action is that its consequences are unknowable. That is the source of the wonder, beauty, and ugliness that politics can bring into the world. Should I have let that unknowability determine the morality of the case for the overthrow of the regime in Iraq? Would we have had a moral war in 2003 if there had arisen an Iraqi version of Nelson Mandela, and are we now saddled with an immoral one because he did not appear? I cannot think like that. Perhaps it is incumbent upon those who now regret supporting regime change back in 2003 to tell us what the alternative moral course of action was. Was it to wait and watch until the time bomb that was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq blew up in everyone’s faces?

True, I underestimated the self-centeredness and sectarianism of the Iraqi ruling elite put in power by U.S. military action in 2003. I knew them well, after all. And I underestimated the extent to which Iraqi state institutions had already been dismantled by U.N. sanctions, which changed a totalitarian regime into a criminal regime during the 1990s, long before anyone thought of unseating Saddam Hussein by force. Nor did I ever imagine that the conversion of the Iraqi army into a civil reconstruction force—which is what I and others called for in the run-up to 2003—would be translated into Paul Bremer’s order for the overnight firing, without pension, of half a million or so men. Certainly, I never imagined the breathtaking incompetence of the American occupation. Then again, I supported de-Bathification, comparing it all too glibly in interviews to de-Nazification. I did so naively, not allowing myself to think that it would be practiced by my fellow Iraqis as de-Sunnification and that the committee in charge of it would behave like an Iraqi version of McCarthy’s committee on un-American activities.

But my biggest political sin is that in spite of nearly a quarter of a century of writing about the abuses of the Baath Party, I, and more generally the whole community of Iraqi exiles, grossly underestimated the consequences on a society of 30 years of extreme dictatorship. Iraqis were, it is true, liberated by the U.S. action in 2003; they were not defeated as the German and Japanese peoples had been in 1945. A regime was removed and a people liberated overnight, but it was a people that did not understand what had happened to it or why. Iraqis emerged into the light of day in a daze, having been in a prison or a giant concentration camp, cut off from the rest of the world to a degree that is difficult to imagine if you have not lived among them.

All of a sudden this raw, profoundly abused population, traumatized by decades of war, repression, uprisings, and brutal campaigns of social extermination, was handed the opportunity to build a nation from scratch. True, they were adept at learning the most arresting symbols of their re-entry into the world—the mobile phone and the satellite dish, for example. But it proved infinitely harder to get rid of the mistrust, fear, and unwillingness to take initiative or responsibility that was ingrained into a people by a whole way of survival in police-state conditions. No one made allowances for the deleterious consequences of all this on reconstruction, identity-formation, and nation-building. Is that an argument for, or against, regime change in 2003?