Monday, August 25, 2003

It’s time to get back to basics on the Iraq occupation. Maybe with the summer heat breaking in Washington, if not yet in Baghdad, people will be taking the occasion to cool their more fevered pronouncements on the subject. A few points to review:

m How we got to Baghdad and why we went to Baghdad pale into insignificance next to the sheer fact that we are in Baghdad. Of course, for good reasons (relating to the quality of our intelligence gathering) and for bad reasons (relating to the ongoing struggle for political advantage), the questions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the status of Saddam Hussein’s programs are not going away any time soon. But the administration never claimed that the threat was imminent, only that it was intolerable over time. One could disagree with that and oppose the war as an optional one. Or one could support it as a worthy exercise in preventive action. Having supported it, one could nevertheless be more wary of future such claims about gathering threats. Or not.

None of which has any bearing on the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of personnel on the ground in Iraq, a country we are occupying militarily. There is only one morally decent approach to the problem there, and that is a commitment to do whatever is necessary to rebuild the country and bring stable, peaceful, decent, liberal, democratic governance to Iraq, however long it takes and however much it costs.

m Occupations tend to last a while. Anybody who thought we were quickly going to be able to turn matters over to local authorities and then depart en masse was deluding himself and possibly others. Our ambitions in Iraq are vast. It is now generally regarded as the proving ground of our commitment to the democratic, liberal transformation of the greater Middle East. We have picked the hardest case as our test case: For 30 years, Iraq was in the grip of a totalitarian Ba’athist regime headed by one of the most brutal dictators on earth. For a generation, people lived in terror. Civil society struggled to stay alive in a society shot through with secret police. And in its final years, Iraq seems to have found an affinity with Islamicist radicals based on mutual animus against the United States.

A place ripe for bourgeois democracy? Not exactly. Perhaps less so than the defeated Nazi Germany. Critics made exactly this point in opposition to the venture. But the task is no less urgent because it is difficult; it is, in fact, more urgent. Where a transition to liberal democracy is relatively easy, the problems the country in question poses to the United States and the international system tend already to be minimal. The greater Middle East poses the challenges it does because it has long been resistant to liberalization and integration into the modern world — a resistance enabled by the region’s oil wealth. We can expect to be busy for some years in Iraq on this “hearts and minds” issue. The regional project will probably take a generation.

m There is no guidebook to occupation. Sure, there are some historical precedents that may be useful in Iraq, and there are Geneva conventions on the law of occupation. Otherwise, however, we are destined to learn how to do it by doing it. As I have noted here, we will probably be making every mistake in the book, because there is no book. The only book that will come is the one we ourselves will write after the fact; it will be a chronicle of mistakes in judgment, failures to anticipate contingencies before they arise, measures taken that turned out to have been inadequate half-measures, lost ground that had to be made up, etc.

Are we, for example, currently in a situation in which we face an escalating guerrilla war, or are we making progress in shutting down the remaining armed resistance? I don’t know. You don’t know. No one knows. We will find out as we go forward. Provided one exercises due diligence and acts in good faith, there is no dishonor in making some mistakes. On the contrary: Any potentially successful course of action will entail mistakes along the way.

It is probably too much to expect any dissipation in second-guessing any time soon. And in fact, to the extent that most criticism of the occupation to date can be summed up as “do more” rather than “come home,” it is actually useful to those in the administration committed to staying the course and bringing further resources to bear.

But it sometimes gets a little overheated in its expectations about what’s reasonable in light of the scope of the project we have undertaken.

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