One thought came to mind on Monday, as the US handed sovereignty over to an interim Iraqi government: It was Saddam Hussein's Iraqi flag, with "God is great" monogrammed between its two stars, that was placed behind senior Iraqi officials, not the Coalition Provisional Administration's (CPA) model for a new flag, with its azure crescent and horizontal lines of blue and green.
There was much symbolism in that, and in the former US civilian administrator Paul Bremer's hurried exit from Baghdad, over which he ruled like an absolute monarch for more than a year. The message was one of unbecoming disorder and of ambitions gone awry. But now it is the revisionists' turn to write the history of the US intervention in Iraq. From villains, the Americans will slowly be metamorphosed into sponsors of a new Iraqi order, if only by virtue of their having, at last, left the Iraqis to themselves.
To be sure, for the time being Iraq is not (and probably does not wish to be) absolutely sovereign. The US military will remain, and its essential role in maintaining security will mean the interim government's margin of maneuver will be limited. However, that is bound to change as an Iraqi Army, or some variation on it, is built up. That Iraqis will continue to take the bulk of casualties will grant the authorities in Baghdad much greater leeway to widen their autonomy.
What is next for the United States? The crows have mocked Bremer, and, legitimately, the CPA's poor performance in the past year. Even a conservative critic, Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, felt compelled recently to send out an email analyzing CPA achievements, "to take a cold, hard look at the actual progress reported by the CPA, as distinguished from the spin…" Cordesman calculated that "out of $18.4 billion in aid, $11 billion has been apportioned, $7.6 billion has been committed, $4.8 billion has been obligated, and all of $333 million has actually been spent." What followed was a damning indictment of the state of affairs in various Iraqi sectors, particularly security, health, electricity production and education.
Bremer will soon begin writing his memoirs, so the jury is still out on his responsibility for the more controversial decisions he took—several of which may have been imposed by superiors in Washington. However, if recent history is a guide, American setbacks in Iraq need not spell failure. In post-World War II Japan and Germany, there were also major snags. As historian Niall Ferguson recently wrote in "Colossus," his book on the American empire: "What was planned did not happen. What happened was not planned. This was not so much an empire by invitation as an empire by improvisation."
Some would contend there was a trifle too much American improvisation in Iraq, but there is still time to ensure that post-war challenges are turned into a success. In this context, revisionism is important. With Bremer gone, Iraqis will view their situation differently. The so-called resistance, if it continues, will be perceived mainly as malevolently anti-Iraqi; terrorist actions directed against civilians and the security forces will be seen merely as efforts to wreck Iraqi stability.
With newfound respect, the US, if it avoids being overbearing in Iraqi affairs and works with the people it claims to have liberated, will be able to focus on the real issue: helping ensure that a secular and democratic order emerges in Iraq, where leaders are accountable and disposable. In parallel, the US must collaborate in the establishment of an autonomous judiciary. As in South Vietnam, where the US made a similar commitment, the quality of Iraqi institutions will have a bearing on how well, or how badly, the US is regarded.
A key phase in this process will be to help ensure that the new Iraqi military becomes a guarantor of pluralism and a representative of the population, not just another emblematic Arab army that is oppressor, kingmaker, business mafia and regime guard dog all rolled into one. One useful model is the Turkish military today—bearing in mind that the latter also went through an appalling autocratic phase and that Iraqi society is far more diverse than Turkey's.
The US must also accept the chore of mediating in the emergence of an Iraqi political system that satisfies all the country's communities. For the moment there is considerable anxiety, particularly among Kurds, that the new Iraq will harm them as much as the old one did. Washington has to act as midwife to a state that is not so divided that autonomy will be seen by the center as sedition; but that is also not so obligatorily united that minorities will want to break free.
Most importantly, the US must ensure that the dictates of security will not derail the equally important aims of creating a democratic Iraq. Ayad Allawi, the new Iraqi prime minister, is now the hub of all hope. However, he was a Baathist and that brand of despotic politics doesn't wash off easily. Allawi's main concern, namely enforcing stability, is understandable, but should not be exclusive.
The US must remember that an initial goal in going to war was to democratize Iraq, so that, gradually, neighboring peoples would feel the positive pull of a more open political system at the heart of the Arab world. As the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks proved, American, indeed Western, national security depends on the success of this endeavor. That is America's priority now, while Iraqis are left free to rebuild a country that its former CPA overseers quite plainly could not.