What Went Wrong?

A onetime believer deconstructs the Iraq war


On Wednesday, The New York Times reported on a working draft of the new Iraqi constitution, in particular a chapter on public and private rights that "would cede a strong role to Islamic law and could sharply curb women's rights, particularly in personal matters like divorce and family inheritance." While the United States has insisted that Islam should only be "a source" of legislation, several of the drafters indicated they intended, at the least, to make Islam "a main source."

This arcane discussion over the role of religion is, in fact, fundamental to the legacy the Bush administration intends to leave behind in Iraq. When Paul Bremer headed the late Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), he had promised to veto any charter that considered Islamic law the basis of Iraqi law. His warning was a statement in favor of progressivism, at least as defined by the United States. However, the draft constitutional clauses, by reflecting dismissal of such concerns, show that the U.S. is fighting a hard battle in Iraq even at the level of ideas.

In that sense, the news provides a fitting foreground to the backdrop set by David L. Phillips, who in April published Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco. Phillips worked as a senior advisor to the Democratic Principles Working Group of the State Department's Freedom of Iraq Project. FOIP was a $5 million undertaking to produce detailed recommendations for postwar Iraq. It included the participation of hundreds of Iraqis and 17 federal agencies. However, in the aftermath of the U.S. military victory, amid bureaucratic infighting between State on the one hand and the Defense Department and Vice President Dick Cheney's office on the other, it was ignored.

To this day, FOIP is held up by the war's critics as an example of "what might have been" had not Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney sought to impose their imprimatur on postwar Iraq through the indomitable Ahmad Chalabi.

Phillips' account breaks little new ground when it comes to American failings. Though we're never sure how important Phillips' role was after the removal of Saddam Hussein—by which time the FOIP was a multi-volume white elephant—he does bring an authoritativeness to his critique, which echoes countless other condemnations of U.S. blundering by former supporters of the war.

The highlights of the fiasco are distressingly familiar: The Bush administration had no carefully prepared postwar plan; it delayed for too long in filling the security vacuum after Baghdad's fall, allowing the looting of ministries, which would decisively undercut reconstruction plans; it abruptly replaced the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, led by Gen. Jay Garner, with a CPA in disarray; in two irresponsible moves, the CPA's Bremer dissolved the Baath Party and the armed forces, angering hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, most of them Sunnis, who would form the backbone of the anti-American insurgency; the CPA failed initially to gauge the importance of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, only to later bend to his demand that a constituent assembly be formed on the basis of elections; the U.S. military allowed the abuse at Abu Ghraib to occur, yet the Bush administration later failed to hold senior officials accountable; and so on.

For those who supported the war and still do—present company included—Phillips' book makes for arduous but obligatory reading. From the moment Iraq was touted as America's grand gambit in the war on terrorism, the Bush administration had a duty to ensure it succeeded. Beyond what the invasion's success meant for American soldiers and Iraqi citizens, it was destined to be, or so we were told, the first step in the transformation of the Middle East. With a democratic Iraq at its center, the region would slowly begin liberalizing, so that, ultimately, violent Islamism would find itself on the defensive in facing representative, and presumably increasingly prosperous, societies.

Instead, what ensued was a gradual descent into mayhem. Ultimately, Iraq may emerge from its nightmare thanks to the Iraqis themselves. The religious and ethnic communities, particularly the Shiites, have shown remarkable restraint in averting civil war, though that could be fraying. But the question is whether Bush administration officials, particularly Rumsfeld, quite understood how important Iraq was when they took decisions that would ultimately imperil the whole enterprise.

The irony is that those pooh-poohing the war's ability to change the Middle East proved to be mostly wrong. To quote former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft in a 2004 interview with The New York Observer: "It's not that I don't believe Iraq is capable of democracy. But the notion that within every human being beats this primeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me."

Yet the behavior of Arab regimes after Saddam's downfall showed that none shared Scowcroft's sanguinity: In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak announced he would accept competitive presidential elections; Saudi Arabia held municipal elections for the first time in decades; Jordan and Syria have continued to employ the rhetoric of reform, sometimes accompanied by specific measures. To be sure, such moves have largely been bogus, designed to ward off unmanageable change. However, even chaff heightens expectations of democratic amelioration, while also accentuating a regime's shortcomings. Symbolic reform is by no means a sufficient condition for improvement; however, it can be a necessary one, since despotic edifices often crumble in the wake of what regimes mistakenly regard as controllable change.

Nor can one ignore the verifiable successes in the aftermath of the Iraq war: the Iraqi and Palestinian elections, and the Lebanese overthrow of Syrian hegemony. Even if one were to interpret Iraq's January 30 vote as an effort to end the U.S. occupation, it is to the Bush administration's credit that it adopted the process, after some hesitation, as a cornerstone of its Iraqi policy. The Palestinian presidential and municipal elections, while not the first under the Palestinian Authority, nevertheless legitimately reflected voters' attitudes and drew on a general regional desire for valid democratic procedures and emancipation—in this case from Israel. And Lebanon's "Independence Intifada" (no Lebanese uses the term "Cedar Revolution") could not have taken place without American and French pressure, and particularly the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

What of that military presence? President George W. Bush's June 29 speech on Iraq was adamant about staying the course, but otherwise short on new ideas to prosecute the war. Those who have been following the tactics of the war effort long enough offer more detailed answers; others prefer to simply let history do the talking; and yet others admit to having no magic solution, but define what they see as necessary priorities. In that context, some general principles seem in order.

The first is that an American withdrawal from Iraq now would be a disaster—for both Iraq and the U.S. It is unacceptable from a moral and humanitarian point of view, because far higher levels of violence than we have today, and probably civil war, would ensue. Pragmatically, unrestrained violence at the heart of the Middle East could do immense damage not only to American interests, but to everyone else's. Iraq would truly become, to quote Tom Friedman, "a Lebanon on steroids"—a conflict sucking in regional actors that would anyway, at some stage, likely demand an American return. Everything from the international oil market to Iran's nuclear calculations would be affected by a maelstrom in Iraq.

Consequently, Bush is right when saying that the worst thing the U.S. can do today is announce a timetable for withdrawal, or even a cutback of troops. While such an announcement might be expedient domestically, it would be regarded by Iraqis as a forewarning of abandonment. The U.S. is little trusted when it comes to slogging through unpleasant fights, so that serious signs of wavering could trigger centrifugal forces in Iraqi society. With the Kurds pining to break free in the north and Sunnis only recently beginning to participate in shaping a new political system, this would be disastrous. It could also prompt Shiites to consolidate by force of arms what they have until now tried to secure through a peaceful negotiating process.

A second principle is that the U.S. should continue the process of handing power over to the Iraqis and building up their capacity to defend themselves. By the end of this year a new government should be in place—one more legitimate than its predecessors. A gradual reduction of American troops must parallel that process. What shouldn't be done, however, is to follow a domestic American timetable in any reduction of troops—so that unprepared Iraqi security forces are hung out to dry. More U.S. soldiers may not resolve the problem, but too few will only make things worse. The way out of the current mess is for American soldiers to continue maintaining a semblance of order while the Iraqis slowly gain the capacity to do so themselves. This will probably take years, not months, and the American public should know that.

A third principle is to make life better for the Iraqis. The U.S. has botched the civilian aid effort, with many people still facing, for example, electricity rationing in the stifling summer heat. Security is a problem and attacks against infrastructure are ongoing. However, from the outset the Bush administration gave little time to the postwar logistics of the Iraqi campaign. A pleasant oddity of Phillips' book is the sympathy he has for the much-maligned Garner, who tried hard to match humanitarian assistance to the war plan. As the general admitted: "[Postwar assistance was] an ad hoc operation, glued together over about four or five weeks' time. [We] really didn't have enough time to plan."

For all the hopes it placed in Iraq, the Bush administration fouled up when it could have avoided doing so. Phillips' book is a reminder that Iraq was not necessarily about neo-colonialism, oil, Israel, or racism toward Arabs. Yet those are the reasons often cited to explain American difficulties in Iraq, as if they mandated divine retribution for hubris. U.S. hubris was certainly a factor in the downward spiral in Iraq, but as Phillips makes clear, success was always achievable. He does not use principle to blame the administration; he questions its competence, while accepting that Saddam had to be overthrown. What makes Phillips' book so damaging is that it was written by a onetime believer.