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What might have been

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2007

For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'it might have been.'

John Greenleaf Whittier

Writing 150 years ago, the poet Whittier was talking about unfulfilled dreams of a kind quite different from Iraq: late in life a once pretty farm girl, Maud Muller, was ruing her missed opportunities. And yet there is a strange similarity. For the Iraqis, for oppressed Arabs and Muslims and, yes, for once-optimistic Americans, it could all have been so very different... if only we hadn't missed — botched — countless opportunities.

Those who continue to believe in the wisdom — the rightness — of liberating Iraq now, and I am one of them, hope and pray that a 20 percent "surge" of 30,000 troops, plus changed offensive tactics can lead to a fair and balanced peace.

It is time to look back and ponder what might have been, in the knowledge that most of what should have been done four or five years ago was proposed by many experienced observers:

c If we had acted firmly with the looters and the lawless following Baghdad's liberation, we might well have sent a message it doesn't pay to break the law and we might even have prevented the outfitting of an estimated million men with countless arms and armaments "liberated" from Iraq's military bases.

c If we had introduced an immediate post liberation "surge" of 100,000 to 150,000 additional troops, we might have accomplished the three occupation essentials: maintained law and order in the cities, guarded the hostile Iranian and Syrian borders, and protected the military materiel that emboldened Sunni and Shi'ite terrorists. Virtually every experienced postwar expert knew that a large country with dedicated foreign and domestic enemies needed up to twice the numbers that waged the brilliant liberating blitz.

c If America's key players, including our most senior official in Baghdad, had understood Iraq's political climate, Arab culture and the Muslim religion, we certainly might have known that dismissing the military and police forces was a cruel fate for the men and their egos thrust into the streets, their families and the Iraqi citizenry savoring their first sips of freedom in 35 years. It took little wisdom to know that the overwhelming majority of junior and noncommissioned officers, plus virtually all the troops and cops on the beat were not die-hard Ba'athists.

Once rid of the generals and other suspect senior officers and, with a million Iraqi men stationed in the cities and on the borders defending their society, we might just have avoided thousands of American dead and wounded.

c If we had heeded Shi'ite aspirations, Sunni fears and the non-Arab Kurds' independent penchant, we might sensibly have urged the Iraqis to adopt a Swiss-style federal model, as many experienced analysts urge even prior to liberation.

c Had the oil sector been privatized, with shares for every adult citizen, the universal individual economic reward might well have assuaged desperate unemployment that encouraged terrorist recruitment. In the bargain, inefficient and often corrupt government run companies in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates might at least have been forced by their citizens to reorganize, if not privatize.

Net: with some 80 percent of the Iraqi population still today approving the removal of the Saddam regime, the more than 95 percent who did so immediately following liberation might indeed have had a much better chance to enjoy freedom.

Recall the pictures of ink-stained fingers of those voting three separate times for their fledgling democracy. They were, and remain, the majority of Iraqis.

Recall the real steps to opening their societies taken by leaders in Egypt, Kuwait, Libya, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Syria, following Saddam Hussein's fall. Recall also that when they saw the United States waver, emirs, kings and presidents-for-life did what despots do: they reverted to form.

What happens when professional, trained military experts spend more than two years exhaustively planning a war? Two things: multiple scenarios are developed and tested, and virtually all contingencies are considered.

What happens when theorists and practically inexperienced (if well-meaning) people lightly plan a peace? One thing: chaos.

There was never any question about the outcome of the invasion: we win and Saddam loses. The neglected issue was winning the peace. Because little time and energy was devoted to planning for post-liberation Iraq, and because those who administered our occupation were grossly inexperienced, we are on the verge of losing the peace.

That we must cling to the too little, too late "surge" to lift us and our Iraqi friends out of the morass is appalling. A senior, well-informed administration official responded wearily to the "what if" question: "You mean do we have a Plan B? Sure. It's 'B' gone."

Should the "surge" not succeed, it will not be because the Iraqis were unprepared for freedom and democracy, or that Arabs can't govern themselves, or that Islam and democracy don't mix. No, we will have failed principally because of the endless, mindless gaffes of our occupation, flowing from the incredible lack of planning long before the March 2003 invasion.

What could have been a flowering of democracy, the free market and friendly relations between the United States and much of Islam is on the brink of utter failure. Whittier was right.

John R. Thomson, a geopolitical analyst, has lived and worked in Arab and Muslim countries for 40 years. He can be reached at thomson.john.r@gmail.com .