The No-Exit Strategy

Four honest lessons from the war.

Nothing has so polarized the country, or the world, since Vietnam. The polarization itself makes clear-eyed judgment extremely difficult; the chance to be proved right is a temptation few can resist. On April 9, 2003, Thomas Friedman published a column in The New York Times under the headline "Hold Your Applause." The same day the statue of Saddam in Firdos Square fell, and a thousand pro-war pundits commenced an orgy of triumphalism. Two weeks later, at a basketball game, Friedman met the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, who sneered, "Still holding your applause?"

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But even while war supporters at the Weekly Standard and the American Enterprise Institute were congratulating themselves and rubbing opponents' faces in their own appeasement, liberated Iraq was turning sour so quickly that the cheering continued well past the expiration date on the neoconservative dream of an instant democracy. Then, through the infernal summer and violent fall, the war's opponents found their voices again. James Carroll of the Boston Globe declared in September that the war was over and America had lost—after just five months, Iraq had already reached Tet 1968.

In mid-December, Saddam was captured and the momentum swung the other way again. Within 24 hours, the columnist Andrew Sullivan had arraigned a dozen suspected collaborators in the leftist press for insufficient glee; when an Iraqi blogger issued a general expression of thanks, Sullivan replied, "You're welcome.… The men and women in our armed forces did the hardest work. But we all played our part." In this country, the less one's personal experience, contribution, or stake, the more Iraq seems to come down to bragging rights.

Being right on Iraq means forgoing bragging rights. It will all have truly been for naught if the best we can hope for is the satisfaction of saying, "I told you so." The answer to the ultimate question of whether the war has turned out to be a good thing is the same as the one Mao's No. 2 man, Zhou Enlai, gave when asked what he thought of the French Revolution: "It's too early to tell." That doesn't mean we get to defer today's judgment until it's sanctioned by tomorrow's event, any more than we get to revise it retroactively; as Martin Amis once told a scandalized student audience at Princeton, "You can change your mind before, even during, but just not after sex." It isn't the least bit too soon to weigh what the war so far reveals and—in the spirit of The Fog of War, Errol Morris' brilliant documentary on Robert McNamara—to tally a few of the lessons.

1. Don't believe the hype.

Last summer, when I was reporting from Baghdad on the occupation of Iraq, journalists were always trying to figure out whether it would all work out or not, which was connected to the question of what the Iraqis thought about it. One day an Iraqi who was cooperating with the occupation to the extent of joining a district council in Baghdad told me, "We thought they would make us a second Europe." But the occupiers had turned out to be so incompetent and probably venal, he avowed, that the overthrow of Saddam hadn't been worth it. If a council member was talking this way, I concluded, the entire country would soon be in open revolt. A few days later, a nearly toothless old man, who was surviving by selling pathetic little straw fans outside a restaurant, told me that the Americans had done enough simply by getting rid of the tyrant who had ruined his life. I came to realize that the binary thinking we tend to fall back on in the face of complexity—good/bad, success/failure, liberation/occupation—was a serious hindrance to understanding Iraq and Iraqis. I learned to distrust the sound-bite-size quotes offered by Iraqis and Americans in most printed reports. Interviews didn't offer their full import until the second or third hour. The effort at creating a decent new government was being advanced and set back in Iraq thousands of times a day in the smallest encounters, decisions, misunderstandings. To keep a tally was impossible. Assessing a project that will unfold over the coming years demands, first of all, an open mind and a willingness to take in evidence that defies your own bias.

2. Listen to the words, not the music.

The administration's score for the Iraq war included two themes: One, in a minor key and based on fear, was weapons and terrorists; the other, in a major key and based on hope, was democracy. Everyone now knows the degree of exaggeration, selective reading of intelligence, and outright deception that went into the first. As the year went by with no weapons of mass destruction discovered—none whatsoever—the minor theme gradually faded out (no more talk of smoking guns in the form of mushroom clouds), and the major theme began to swell. The president gave a series of speeches toward the end of 2003 sketching a keenly idealistic vision of the future of the Middle East. "Iraqi democracy will succeed," he proclaimed at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in November, "and that success will send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation." It was a fine speech—perhaps the best Bush has given. Unfortunately, at the same time, the administration was letting grants for Iraq programs at the National Democratic Institute—a subagency of the NED—dwindle to close to zero. The institute was planning to launch a program to train civil-society groups and develop political parties in Iraq—something no one else was doing once the interna-tional organizations pulled out after the U.N. bombing in Baghdad in August. (In January, the administration changed course and earmarked $12 million for political party-building programs in Iraq.)

It would be too much to say that the institute's empty tank undermined the president's message about democracy—if it were an isolated case. But it isn't. Here's another example from Iraq: Science Applications International Corp., a defense contractor whose former vice president is now a top Pentagon official, was given the contract to operate a coalition media outlet, in spite of having almost no experience in setting up television and radio broadcasting. By summer, the Iraqi Media Network was a joke and a scandal. Contractors charging $270 an hour were putting up programming so insipid—a mix of coalition announcements and Arab singing—that Iraqis turned for their news to satellite dishes, which brought them Al Jazeera. No one thought to use the outlet as a public-affairs network to begin creating an idea of democratic citizenship.

What do these and other examples show? Not that the administration doesn't believe its own stirring music—cynicism is not the proper diagnosis here—but that the com-mitment is to such a simplistic version of democracy that it has nothing to do with the way things actually happen. In their political thinking, administration ideologues like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle skipped Locke and went to school on Rousseau: They imagine that freedom is the natural human condition—once tyrannical constraints are smashed, democracy will grow in the new light and air. They don't understand that democracy is the most dif-ficult system to establish, and that it only flourishes over the long haul in carefully tended soil. The disastrous days after the fall of Baghdad—with Donald Rumsfeld looking on chaos and calling it freedom—show how dangerous it is to talk about democracy with no idea how to achieve its substance.

3. Good intentions don't count.

You don't get points for wanting the right things. This goes for both sides of the Iraq argument. A minority of liberals—I was one— decided not to oppose a war that was bound to have the singularly happy result of ending one of modern history's worst regimes (and the competition has been pretty stiff). They decided that instead of protesting an already scheduled war, they would try to steer it toward ends they wanted: human rights, political change in the Arab world. To understand why this calculated risk entailed an inevitable degree of self-delusion, consider the words of Randolph Bourne, the young writer for the early New Republic magazine who was ostracized by his colleagues when he refused to join their cheerleading for America's entry into World War I. "The realist thinks he at least can control events by linking himself to the forces that are moving," Bourne wrote of John Dewey, Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and others he once admired. "Perhaps he can. But if it is a question of controlling war, it is diffi-cult to see how the child on the back of a mad elephant is to be any more effective in stopping the beast than is the child who tries to stop him from the ground." The same is true for the liberal interventionists on Iraq: War always has its own logic. It was Bush's war, not theirs; they couldn't criticize the manner of its prosecution without directing some of the blame at themselves.

The same goes for the war's opponents. Among all the anti-war speeches I heard and anti-warriors I talked with, I could count on one hand those who admitted that they were seeking to block a great benefit to Iraqis, and one that Iraqis might have called for if they'd had a voice. Instead, I learned that since we had once supported Saddam, democracy obviously was not involved (it was oil); or that tens of thousands of Iraqis would die in the war, making any talk of a good outcome absurd; or that Bush didn't care about human rights, and so nothing he did could possibly foster them. These were non sequiturs at best, and at worst dishonest. Opponents of the war wanted to believe that, since their motives were good, the outcome of their position would be entirely good as well. Over the past year, I've seen few reconsiderations of this fallacy.

4. The world is what it is.

While recognizing the limits of your judgment, everyone should try at least once to answer the question: What would I do if I had power, starting today, with the facts as they are? In Iraq, that means thinking through some particularly vexing dilemmas: doing it quickly vs. doing it right, universal rights vs. local realities, letting Iraqis make their own destiny vs. fulfilling the obligations we've incurred, and so on.

My own analysis begins with the recognition that, between this moment and the scheduled June 30 handover of sovereignty back to Iraqis, the United Nations is not going to move in as the occupying authority. Iraq will not be internationalized, for the same reasons as ever: The major powers on the Security Council don't want Iraq, and the United States doesn't want to give it to them. If there was ever a chance for this, it was last April, before the world realized what a mess Iraq had become under American occupation. So the preferred solution of many Democrats is no longer on the table. It still seems possible for military authority to be transferred to NATO, under an American commander, but every time someone like Colin Powell goes to Europe and explores the possibility, someone like Donald Rumsfeld sabotages it back in Washington. NATO command would be a good thing because it would share the troop burden and enlarge legitimacy, making both Europe and America more responsible. It would also increase the chances that Iraq will not be abandoned because of the imperatives of the American political calendar. Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, who in my view has been the most consistently thoughtful Democrat throughout the post-9/11 era, said to me, "If you had to bet what this administration ultimately is going to do between now to the time Election Day occurs, my bet is they cut and run." If he's right, NATO in Iraq would make it less likely that Iraqis will be left with too few foreign troops to help prevent a civil war or chronic chaos.

Politically, the United States is losing authority every day. The Coalition Provisional Authority is a lame-duck occupier, and Iraqi political and social forces are increasingly driving events. The rebirth of Iraqi politics is a good thing; the fact that it has largely taken the form of a zero-sum game of ethnic and sectarian power struggles is not. American attempts to shape the new government from the top down will probably backfire. What remains is to use our large presence and our dollars to begin building institutions from the bottom up—to help political parties get on their feet, strengthen nascent civic groups, fund the work of international NGOs and find a way to lure them back into the country. We can also push for an electoral schedule that cultivates local democratic practice before it attempts a national vote, which will likely lead to a bloody division of the spoils.

Everything we do from now on should be guided by two principles: first, to do everything to insulate what Iraq needs from our domestic political spectacle; and second, to amend last year's grievous mistakes with an approach that commits us to real Iraqi democracy and not the instant variety.