Justin Soutar
May 8, 2007
When the war in Iraq was commenced more than four years ago, a significant level of
optimism pervaded the United States. A majority of Americans believed that this was
a war of national liberation to free the Iraqi people from the cruel tyrant Saddam
Hussein. Once he was out of the picture, a democratically elected government would
be established, the nation would be rebuilt, a free market economy would emerge, and
Iraq would enjoy peace and prosperity. Moreover, the benefits of the invasion would
not be confined to that single Arab state. The triumph of democracy in Iraq would
unleash a domino effect thruout the Middle East, leading to democratic revolutions
in Syria, Libya, and perhaps even Iran and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms. This
development would add to the number of American allies in the region. Furthermore,
all of these changes (together with the previous invasion of Afghanistan) were
expected to pull the rug from under the feet of al-Qaeda, depriving that terrorist
network of its home base. And we boasted that our dramatic invasion of Iraq would
frighten all “cowardly” “Islamic” terrorists in the country out of their wits.
Unfortunately, the real Operation Iraqi Freedom has turned out to be much more
complicated. While the overthrow of Hussein is a benefit acknowledged by Iraqis
themselves, all other effects of the war have been detrimental. Bribery,
intimidation, and generally low voter turnout due to violence have impeded the
democratic process. Rampant corruption has led to an extremely slow pace of
rebuilding and allowed gigantic American corporations to dominate the “free” market,
both contributing to a high poverty rate. Instead of stimulating democratic
revolutions across the Middle East, the war in Iraq has provoked an increase in
anti-Americanism thruout the Middle East and the Muslim world, rendering our
position there less secure. Finally, the war has set the stage for an outbreak of
terrorism unrivalled anywhere else in the world.
After all of our best-laid plans failed to unfold as expected, Americans are asking
the question, “What went wrong?” In order to answer that question, a second related
question presents itself: “Who is to blame?” Obviously the Iraqi people cannot be
blamed. They desire a free, secure, and prosperous country even more than we do;
they have worked hard to achieve that end; and they unanimously oppose terrorist
crimes against innocent civilians. [1] The “Muslim” terrorist campaign certainly
shoulders some of the blame for killing thousands of innocent human lives and
damaging property. At the same time, since that terrorism is a reaction to
unresolved grievances within Iraqi society, the principal blame lies with those
responsible for triggering such grievances. The United States should admit to having
made many errors of judgment in prosecuting its war in Iraq.
First, we misunderstood the wishes of the Iraqi people. While we correctly assumed
that they chafed under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, we incorrectly believed
that they were amenable to the use of war to attain that objective. A poll by United
Press International discovered that in the spring of 2003, 53 percent of Iraqis (an
overwhelming number of Sunni Muslims, a slight majority of Shiite Muslims and a
minority of Kurds) were strongly opposed to the American invasion. [2] War—even a
just war—causes numerous problems, not the least of which is the creation of
insecurity. An old Arab proverb goes, “Better a hundred years of despotism than one
day of anarchy.” If the choice was between Saddam Hussein and another president,
most Iraqis desired another president; but if the choice was between Hussein and
anarchy, most Iraqis preferred the continued rule of Hussein. Now nine in ten Iraqis
wish American forces to leave their country within a year and a half. [3]
Second, our view of democracy was myopic: we confused the rule of the people with
the American federal republican system of government. Each people not only have the
right to govern themselves, but also to choose which form of government that they
wish to represent them. Whether that form is a universal pure democracy in which all
citizens participate directly in running the government; the absolute rule of a
single widely trusted individual; or something in between, it represents democracy
if the people have chosen it. We mistakenly assumed that our federal republican
system would work just as well in the Middle East and in a nation with a radically
different history and culture. Furthermore, we assumed that the people of Iraq
admired our governmental system and desired to imitate it. While democracy is a
universal principle, the concrete expression of that democracy varies from one
country and people to another.
Third, we indulged the fantasy that what was good for big business and globalization
would be good for Iraq. The invasion of companies such as Halliburton, General
Electric and Bechtel was supposed to be a welcome replacement for the archaic,
inefficient, state-owned corporations of the Baathist regime. Instead, the results
have been disastrous. Iraq became a playground for oil smugglers overnight. Few
areas of the state receive more than ten hours of electricity per day, and growing
piles of garbage and sewage litter the major cities. The Coalition Provisional
Authority’s directive requiring Iraqi farmers to purchase hybrid seeds engineered by
Monsanto instead of using their own seeds from a previous year’s crop drove up the
prices of produce, forcing many farmers into destitution. Another directive
permitting 100 percent foreign ownership of businesses has prevented small Iraqi
firms from competing in the national marketplace. Worst of all, the gap between rich
and poor now resembles that of several corrupt African regimes including Zimbabwe
and Sudan.
Fourth, we imagined that brute military force (i.e. “shock and awe”) would scare
“Islamic” terrorists into hiding. This concept only worked during the initial
invasion. As soon as our occupation of the country was complete, when President Bush
declared “Mission Accomplished” and challenged the terrorists to “bring it on”, they
brought it on with astounding ferocity. The entire idea of all-out armed action as
the sole effective response to terrorism is flawed. Some Americans would like to see
our grand arsenal unleashed without mercy on Baghdad, the Sunni Triangle, and Basra
to crush the “Muslim” terrorist groups once and for all. But if past experience is
any guide to the future, terrorists would resume their activities the minute the
dust settled—and we would have wasted more billions of taxpayer dollars.
Instead of brushing these errors of judgment aside, we ought to learn from them. The
chief result of our acting upon these misconceptions is that, to paraphrase John F.
Kennedy, a rising tide of anti-Americanism has lifted all boats thruout the Middle
East and Muslim world. Whereas before the invasion of Iraq public opinion of the
United States in those regions was decidedly mixed, the Arab and Muslim peoples—even
in Western-oriented countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Indonesia—now
overwhelmingly perceive us as lacking understanding of their circumstances and
interested only in imposing our will abroad.
What should we do next in Iraq? Is there hope for the future of the country? Diehard
champions of the war have gradually reduced their expectations, saying that to win
in Iraq we must restore a minimum level of security and ensure that the Iraqi people
possess reasonable control of their own country. But the scale of the insurgency and
the dominance of American big business guarantees that neither will happen anytime
No matter how depressing the state of affairs in Iraq has become, there is indeed
hope for the future. But this hope will not come from more military operations or
terrorist violence. Keeping American soldiers in Iraq, however loyal and courageous
they may be, for five or ten more years will not improve matters. The cycle of
violence will not be broken by the ultimate conquest of one side, but by the
renunciation of force on both sides. In addition, a multitude of small locally-owned
businesses would be far more beneficial to Iraq than the few American
mega-corporations presently stationed there.
Finally, keeping American troops in Iraq will continue to be an exercise in
futility. “Islamic” terrorism will not cease until the grievances of the terrorists
are addressed. On the other hand, the Persian Gulf War of 1991 was swift and
decisive because we were confronting a military enemy. Though comparisons of this
war to the Vietnam War have drawn some sharp replies, they contain a good deal of
merit, especially concerning the fact that military forces cannot “defeat”
guerrillas and terrorists. We should start a complete withdrawal of American troops
from Iraq without further delay. Champions of the war have derided such a proposal
as “cut and run”, “defeatist”, “appeasement of evil”, and “irresponsible”. It is
none of those things. On the contrary, an evacuation would be an exercise in common
Since early March of 2003 I have been a firm opponent of the war in Iraq. Seeing
what has transpired in the country since that date, I have no regrets for this
position. However, for those who continue to support the war, regrets can only
accumulate with time.
1. “New WPO Poll: Iraqi Public Wants Timetable for US Withdrawal, But Thinks US
Plans Permanent Bases in Iraq”, World Public, Jan. 31, 2006; retrieved
March 6, 2007.
2. “A slim majority of Iraqis -- 33 percent [sic] -- thought that it was ‘absolutely
wrong’ for the United States to invade Iraq in spring 2003.” – Lea Mae Rice,
“Analysis: What Do Iraq Polls Really Mean?”, United Press International, June 30,
2004; posted on website of International Republican Institute,; retrieved March 16, 2007.
3. See no. 1.