Failed Occupation?

Tomorrow, WaPo will begin a three-part series on US failures in Iraq (OCCUPYING IRAQ : Unmet Goals, Unkept Promises)

Part I — As Handover Nears, U.S. Mistakes Loom Large

The American occupation of Iraq is formally ending this month having failed to fulfill many of its goals and stated promises intended to transform the country into a stable democracy, according to a detailed examination drawing upon interviews with senior U.S. and Iraqi officials and internal documents of the occupation authority.

The ambitious, 15-month undertaking stumbled because of a series of mistakes that began with an inadequate commitment of resources and deepened with a misunderstanding of how politics, religion and society would evolve in occupied Iraq, these participants said.

“We blatantly failed to get it right,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who served as an adviser to the occupation authority. “When you look at the record, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that we squandered an unprecedented opportunity.”

Viewed from Baghdad since April 2003, the occupation has evolved from an optimistic partnership between Americans and Iraqis into a relationship riven by frustration and resentment. U.S. reconstruction specialists commonly complain of ungrateful Iraqis. Residents of a tough Baghdad neighborhood that welcomed U.S. forces with cold cans of orange soda last spring now jeer as military vehicles roll past. A few weeks ago, young men from the area danced atop a Humvee disabled by a roadside bomb, eventually torching it.

In many ways, the occupation appears to have transformed the occupier more than the occupied. Iraqis continue to endure blackouts, lengthy gas lines, rampant unemployment and the uncertain political future that began when U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad. But American officials who once roamed the country to share their sense of mission with Iraqis now face such mortal danger that they are largely confined to compounds surrounded by concrete walls topped with razor wire. Iraqis who want to meet them must show two forms of identification and be searched three times.

The Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. entity that has administered Iraq, cites many successes of its tenure. Nearly 2,500 schools have been repaired, 3 million children have been immunized, $5 million in loans have been distributed to small businesses and 8 million textbooks have been printed, according to the CPA. New banknotes have replaced currency with ousted president Saddam Hussein’s picture. Local councils have been formed in every city and province. An interim national government promises to hold general elections next January.

But in many key quantifiable areas, the occupation has fallen far short of its goals.

The Iraqi army is one-third the size U.S. officials promised it would be by now. Seventy percent of police officers have not received training. When violence flared across the country this spring, many soldiers and policemen refused to perform their duties because U.S. forces failed to equip them, designate competent leaders and win trust among the ranks.

About 15,000 Iraqis have been hired to work on projects funded by $18.6 billion in U.S. aid, despite promises to use the money to employ at least 250,000 Iraqis by this month. At of the beginning of June, 80 percent of the aid package, approved by Congress last fall, remained unspent.

Electricity generation remains stuck at around 4,000 megawatts, resulting in less than nine hours of power a day to most Baghdad homes, despite pledges from U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer to increase production to 6,000 megawatts by June 1.

Iraq’s emerging political system is also at odds with original U.S. goals. American officials scuttled plans to remain as the occupying power until Iraqis wrote a permanent constitution and held democratic elections. Instead, Bremer will leave the Iraqis with a temporary constitution, something he repeatedly promised not to do, and an interim government headed by a president who was not the Bush administration’s preferred choice.

Some of this is clearly a failure of execution. More of it is a function of overly ambitious goals. Much of it, though, is not a failure a reasonable outcome given conflicting goals. Given that our desire was democratization, it’s rather odd to complain too much that the locals exerted influence on the process and have chosen a path other than the one we might have liked. That’s rather the nature of democracy, no?

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. La Femme Crickita says:

    Sounds to me like they got what they wanted. We got Saddam. They got a chance. Leave them to it. If nothing else, that chance alone will do more for good will and assistance down the road than if we stay and shove it down their throats.

  2. Fred Boness says:

    No thought at all to the failures of mainstream media?