Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Iraq: calamity from the jaws of liberation

As is hideously clear, things in Iraq since the war have not gone in a way that those of us seeking humanitarian benefits had hoped. Yes, the dictatorship is gone, and there are political freedoms, but in much of the country the security situation is poor and there are far too many sectarian killings.

Saddam’s Baathist state had a classic monopoly of power – in practice, a monopoly of terror. It dominated society and had no credible internal challenger, maintaining its position regular sadistic violence and perpetual fear.

The war and its immediate aftermath gutted the state as well as toppling the regime. Now, the new Iraqi government has limited control over the country, and the numerous armed groups that have sprung up are grimly proving a tenet of right-wing thought: that when a state monopoly is smashed, competitive private enterprise can move into the gap with remarkable dynamism.

The new regime is far better than the old, which affords ordinary Iraqis greater breathing space in some ways, but not in others. The government’s weakness means that, in effect, terror in Iraq has been privatised. Sectarian hardliners are manoeuvring for advantage – the kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux – and because the lack of a dominant force in the land means that they have more to plausibly compete for, they fight and kill and threaten with an open ferocity unthinkable under Saddam.

Iraq is no longer a ‘republic of fear’ but has veered towards becoming a free market of terror.

The brutality may be more energetic now, but it is less total than under Saddam. We shouldn’t assume that none of the change has been for the better, awful as the overall situation now looks. (And there’s only one meaningful way to assess the overall balance of pros and cons, which I’ll go over in a couple of days.)

So, what went wrong?

A popular, glib answer is: ‘We invaded’. But this position has two drawbacks: first, if you think the current calamity was the inevitable consequence of toppling Saddam, then you’re disqualified from suggesting that the postwar administration has been mishandled. If this civil violence was a certainty, then nothing the occupation did or didn’t do made a bit of difference.

Secondly, if you think this was inevitable post-Saddam, then there is a question about what would have happened had there been no war and, eventually, Saddam’s reign was ended by other means. (I’ll come back to this point later in the week as well.)

But one argument, from Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Ygelsias and others, accepts that things could perhaps have been done better – but holds that it was clear in advance that the Bush Administration was going to mess things up. As such, failure was inevitable, and many who supported this war because they supported, in principle, a war should have opposed it instead. As Jacob Weisberg, who had bee pro-war, puts it: “This was elective surgery, and we had a pretty good idea what the surgeon's limitations were.”

Michael Ignatieff’s recantation also goes along these lines:

“So I supported an administration whose intentions I didn't trust, believing that the consequences would repay the gamble. Now I realize that intentions do shape consequences. An administration that cared more genuinely about human rights would have understood that you can't have human rights without order and that you can't have order once victory is won if planning for an invasion is divorced from planning for an occupation.”

Let’s be cynical for a moment about the motives. Let’s accept for argument’s sake that they never cared about human rights and democracy, and that they knew all along that there were no WMD. What were their aims? (1) To get cheap access to Iraqi oil. (2) To create a friendly client state for stationing the US troops that had been in Saudi Arabia, so their presence wouldn’t feed Arab anger and boost terrorist recruitment. (3) To demonstrate the shocking and awesome might of the US military, so that other tinpot regimes would fall into line for fear of invasion. (4) To secure Bush’s reelection.

The first three of these have failed abysmally, and the success of the fourth owes more to the religious right’s willingness to turn out on ‘moral issues’ and to John Kerry’s campaigning prowess.

My point is that even if we’re cynical about motives, then it’s clear that fulfilling these aims would have required successful occupation and reconstruction policies. You can’t have human rights without security, but nor can you pump oil, avoid popular opposition and terrorist attacks, showcase your effortless power and win approval at home by creating a situation of borderline civil war.

They made a bloody great mess. That much is unarguable. But, unlike Ignatieff, I think that they, themselves, for whatever their own purposes were, had every reason to get it right. So on the simple grounds that they would not have wanted their own plans to fail, it was reasonable to expect that they’d make good efforts on security.

Indeed, Fareed Zakaria argues that an encouraging precedent had been set:

“Consider what the administration itself did in Afghanistan. It allied with local forces on the ground so that order would be maintained. It upheld the traditional structure of power and governance in the country – that is, it accepted the reality of the warlords – while working very slowly and quietly to weaken them. To deflect anti-Americanism, the military turned over the political process to the United Nations right after Kabul fell. … The United States gave NATO and the European Union starring roles in the country – and real power—which led them to accept real burden-sharing.”

But Iraq was a very different story. Let me briefly list some of the commonest criticisms: too few troops were sent, with inadequate rules of engagement; too little priority was given to protecting public buildings and infrastructure; the Iraqi army was summarily dismissed, which created not only (in tandem with the low troop numbers) a security vacuum, but also large numbers of disaffected trained fighters ripe for attraction to the extremists trying to fill that vacuum; the borders were inadequately guarded to keep out foreign jihadis; the advisory Iraqi Governing Council appointed in summer 2003 was both lacking in power and unrepresentative, which bred resentment and opportunistic sectarian grandstanding; de-Baathification was more like a de-Sunnification vendetta; election delays frustrated moderate Shias such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani; Muqtada al-Sadr’s radical Shia movement was neither coopted nor seriously taken on at an early stage; goodwill was turned to outrage by prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib…

(An excellent dissection of the blunders comes from Larry Diamond, who worked as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad in 2004.)

Most of the mistakes were made early on, and their effect was to breed discontent and weaken security, two factors that grew into an increasingly vicious circle from which escape has become harder and harder.

Tomorrow I’ll go into why this happened, and who is to blame.

(This is the third in a series of posts. See also the first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth.)

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