An Unachievable Goal
Michael Bell on why the thinking behind the Iraq War guaranteed failure.
On March 14, 2013, the Ministry of Justice in Baghdad was the scene of a hostage taking during which fourteen persons were killed and fifty wounded. Such events are an almost daily occurrence in Iraq, yet we pay little heed because current western attitudes toward the country are clouded by fatigue. Now that American troops are out, willful ignorance has numbed us to the massive foreign policy failure of the George W. Bush administration. A naïve president bought into the pressure of commercial interests, and was persuaded by the ideology of the neo-conservatives. Thinkers, most notably Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, were convinced that Iraq, simplistic as this idea seems today, could be quickly remade into a capitalist and democratic entity in the American image.
These thinkers were committed even beyond the overthrow of the megalomaniac Saddam Hussein and the risk of non-conventional weapons in his control – if no threat was found in the final analysis, one would have to be invented. And it was. My experience as a weapons inspector during 1997 convinced me that Saddam had abandoned his non-conventional agenda, but the American bulldozer went to work regardless of the evidence, buoyed by the need of a bruised nation post 9/11 to lash out – somewhere. Indeed, the Americans lobbied Jean Chretien to remove Paul Heinbecker, our Ambassador to the United Nations at the time, who saw through the charade and said so.
The removal of Saddam, per se, might just have turned out to be an achievement for Iraqis of all stripes, had there been an appreciation of the challenges the aftermath would present. But such was the Bush administration’s hubris that the reality of reconfiguration, reform, and reconstruction were never assessed outside the world of Straussian dreams. The institutions of the old regime that formed the “glue of governance” – the armed forces and the Ba’ath party – were dismantled. Party members of any seniority, whether university administrators or medical doctors, were sacked, leaving the country disorganized and rudderless. The Bush administration then subjected the country to American “experts” who would guide Iraqis to a new beginning. An example of these “experts” is the youth (comically) from Michigan that used their own state’s legislation to rewrite Iraqi traffic laws. American army captains dressed down tribal sheiks. Tribal, religious, ethnic, and community complexities were ignored at great cost.
The reconstruction effort, in which I played a part as Chair of the Donor Committee of the International Reconstruction Fund for Iraq (IRRFI), provided more evidence that the tight, clean reconstruction task envisaged by the neo-cons was a mirage. Remaking Iraq from scratch was an impossible mission and those within IRFFI knew it. There was never an effective coordinated effort and donors often committed their funds to their own self-serving projects at the expense of Iraq. UN agencies tussled with each other to bypass what weak management mechanisms existed. No one can say with certainty how much money made it to the projects as intended. International staff could not travel safely outside the Green Zone so virtually all operational and most financial details were left in the hands of local field management.
The American Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction released a report in March 2013 that is scathing in its criticism of incompetence, mismanagement, waste, and corruption concerning the over $60 billion spent by the United States to rebuild Iraq. The report cites the need to plan comprehensively; ensure security first and foremost; guarantee host country engagement; and make certain of oversight. But the message of the report and lesson of the war is more than that. In the final analysis, the task was overwhelming and the goals unachievable. Thousand-year-old societies cannot be brought to heel, deconstructed and rebuilt on the basis of a radical ideology birthed at the University of Chicago and overwritten by imperial ambition.