Three Views on Iraq, Three Years Later

In May 2003 George W. Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq. A trio of analysts debates the current state of the region.

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In short, it’s impossible to predict Iraq’s future.

2. The war being fought in Iraq is unlike any other. Parallels with Vietnam are of limited use for the simple reason that the Communists were seeking to kick out the Saigon government and replace it, not to create a firestorm that would engulf the region. For Al Qaeda in Iraq, it won’t be over if the U.S. and allied forces withdraw, or the U.S.-backed government falls. In fact, many of those fighting the U.S. and the elected government don’t want the U.S. to withdraw. They want to draw us in further, hoping, as Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri recently put it, to “make the West bleed for years.” Nor is World War II a useful comparison: Once the Fascists and Nazis were beaten, they were beaten. They didn’t go underground and wage a war of destruction; their ideology was effectively defeated with their armies.

The goal of at least a large faction among the insurgents is to create maximum chaos and maximum bloodshed. They account for a tiny fraction of the Iraqi population, and no one really knows what percentage of them are foreigners, but they are ruthless and determined. They will also be very difficult to defeat. No accommodation is possible with them. The existence of an armed faction that is dedicated to destruction per se makes the job of defeating the insurgency all the more difficult.

3. Kurdistan is radically unlike the rest of Iraq. When I drove around Suleimani, the major city in eastern Kurdistan, I saw new buildings with plenty of plate glass windows. That’s a sign of a city that has little fear of suicide bombers or random gunfire. The feeling of relative freedom you get in Kurdish cities is remarkable. The security checkpoints around every city are efficient, and the security forces arrive promptly when they’re called.

The Kurdish region presents an interesting case for political scientists, because it offers a chance to test the relative significance of intentions and of institutions. On the one hand, most everyone seems intent on having a liberal, at least quasi-capitalist democracy. On the other hand, the Kurds have weak civil society institutions and a history of one-party rule; they suffer from the curse of oil (which has been shown time and time again to make the emergence of liberal democracy and free markets improbable, since efforts are devoted to dividing up resource rents rather than to productive activities); and they are surrounded by hostile or potentially hostile parties (a situation that tends to produce an atmosphere of groupthink).

Politics in Kurdistan is dominated by two parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK) in the west and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the east. I got a sense of their influence when I went to one of the universities to give some lectures. I was told that no weapons could be taken in. This did not sit well with some of my friends, who demanded to know who had decided that. They were told, “It’s been decided by the party.” They didn’t like that, either, and we kept our weapons. What was remarkable was that the answer wasn’t “the dean decided it” or “the city council decided it” but “the party decided it.” Still, the PDK and the PUK have agreed to allow offices of each party (and of other Iraqi parties) to exist throughout Kurdistan, and there is real debate in Kurdish political life and institutions. There are independent media outlets, and in the libraries of the universities one can find newspapers for every political party. The general direction is promising, but it’s hard to overcome years of clan rule, which has been solidified by the organization of parties.

I am optimistic about Kurdistan, but the obstacles to a free society there are still enormous.

4. The police are substantially unreliable, whereas the army may be the only authentically Iraqi institution in the country. During a recent briefing with some senior Pentagon officers about the progress of the war in Iraq, I asked about the problem of the infiltration of many police forces by militias, most important among them Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which has made inroads in the south. The response was that Sadr is now a part of the political landscape of Iraq and that he will have to be accommodated, as was shown by the renomination of Ibrahim Jafari for the post of prime minister by one vote, which was undoubtedly due to Sadr’s influence.

More interesting has been the contrast in training and performance between the police forces and the army. The police forces have been largely ineffectual at stopping the insurgents and are, it seems, often controlled or intimidated by sectarian militias; even the security forces from the Ministry of the Interior are substantially controlled by sectarian forces, notably the Badr Brigades allied with Abdel Aziz al Hakim’s Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq party. Meanwhile, the army increasingly has been taking on greater responsibility, accompanied by U.S. advisers, for combat operations in crucial areas of Iraq.

If the insurgents are defeated, it will probably be thanks to the Iraqi Army, not the local police or other security forces (at least outside of Kurdistan), which are perceived by many (often quite rightly) as enforcement arms of sectarian groups. That said, it should be emphasized that some units of the army are perceived as dominated by non-Sunnis and therefore hostile to Sunni interests; creating a nonsectarian national army is a daunting task in a country that has for so long been dominated by sectarian powers.

5. It is hard for people in liberal democracies to understand the mentality of most Iraqis. Iraqis live in a society that was long dominated by lies and propaganda. Rather than the clash of views in a free press, they are accustomed to relying on rumors. With the advent of a free press, that has changed somewhat, and people are less likely to believe everything they hear, but rational discourse is still in limited supply. Many Iraqis are convinced that foreign forces are there to steal their oil (which the world is “stealing” at more than $60 a barrel), that the country is wealthy and only requires a good leader to share that wealth (a refrain I heard from many and which I took great pains to explain was a deadly error; Iraq is not a rich society but a desperately poor one), and so on. Moreover, conspiracy theories are the most common form of political understanding. (That is a problem throughout the Middle East, but it is especially pronounced in Iraq.)

The neoconservative assumption that the default condition when you eliminate a dictatorship is liberal democracy has been shown to be false. It is not the default position of mankind but a rare achievement, one that is often won only at a high price.

Adopting the habit of listening to others, of testing claims against evidence, of comparing different sources of news and information, and the other elements of the Enlightenment mentality is proving very difficult. It is not impossible, but it is harder than many expected.

6. If the U.S. were to withdraw tomorrow, the country would be plunged into a bloodbath. But if the U.S. does not make it clear that foreign forces will withdraw, it is unlikely that Iraqis will be able to unite to defeat the terrorists. The prospect of an indefinite substantial military presence in Iraq will provide a ready scapegoat for all of the country’s problems (including the havoc wreaked by the insurgency). Only the credible prospect of a departure is likely to bring the parties to the table to create a relatively (and I stress relatively) liberal and stable regime for Iraq. And even that might not suffice. The country could break apart. That might not be the worst outcome, but the fighting to determine the borders of the resulting states could be fierce.

If the Bush administration is serious about defeating the insurgents, it has to realize that the Iraqis are better placed to do so and that they will have more incentive to do so if they know that the U.S. will be leaving.

There is a chance that things will turn out well in Iraq, or at least not badly. Whatever the outcome, libertarians should be eager to assist the Iraqis in creating a free society. That’s why my Arab friends and I have established the Lamp of Liberty ( to bring the message of liberty to both Iraqis and the wider Arab world. I am working with Iraqi libertarians who are trying to do the best they can under very difficult circumstances to combat fanaticism, terrorism, and statism. It’s a hard slog, but we have no choice.

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