Moment of Truth

James Kitfield, one of the most respected defense reporters in the business, has a round-up of reflections of some of the best strategic thinkers in the country on our progress in Iraq in the current National Journal. The consensus seems to be that the Bush Administration overreached in its war aims and/or undercommitted to providing adequate resources for success.

One particularly harsh example:

“The United States lacks good options [in Iraq], although it probably never really had them in the sense the Bush administration thought,” Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, concluded in a recent analysis. “The option of quickly turning Iraq into a successful, free-market democracy was never practical, and was as absurd a neoconservative fantasy as the idea that success in this objective would magically make Iraq an example that would transform the Middle East.”

The neocons are hardly popular within the defense intellectual community, which is dominated by traditional Realist thinkers. Certainly, this position was taken by most of them before the war. Still, there has been little to persuade them to come off their original assessment at this stage of the game.

A somewhat milder reaction:

“The Bush administration’s notion of creating in Iraq something that even vaguely resembles a Wilsonian-style democracy, in a country where security has traditionally come not from the ballot box but from force of arms, was always a very high-risk, high-payoff type of gamble that you might expect from a Texas oilman,” said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “Going against such strong cultural currents demanded a very innovative strategy and a long-term, high-level commitment of at least a decade, if not decades.”

This is more in line with my own thinking on the issue. I’ve never been confident that Western-style democracy was going to be the end game in Iraq, especially in the short term. Not so much because Arabs are somehow unsuited for democracy–although I do think fundamentalist Islam and our vision of democracy are mutually exclusive–but because that change needs to come from internal forces rather than imposed from outside. I thought–and still maintain–that the gamble was worth taking if we were committed to the excercise. President Bush emphasized time and again that this was a long-term struggle and I fully expected us to maintain a heavy presence in Iraq for years to come. The signals have become decidedly mixed on this front in recent weeks, however.

It’s hard to conceive of a situation in Iraq worse than we faced with Saddam or his sons in charge. Regime change was worth the price paid. But we’ve paid a far higher price for the follow-on mission of stabilization and democratization, goals which we are a long way from achieving. I hope our commitment to finishing the job remains strong. I don’t expect to turn Iraq into Norway, but a stable country with a government and some reasonable measure of freedom for its citizens has to be in place before we can leave.

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. Steve the Llamabutcher says:

    Like Japan?


Thomas Friedman argues that the capture of Saddam is a major turning point, causing a reconsideration of past positions and also setting he stage for the real test of the Iraqi people.

Of all the fascinating reactions to Saddam Hussein’s capture, the one that intrigues me most is the French decision to suddenly offer some debt forgiveness for Iraq. Why now? I believe it’s an 11th-hour attempt by the French government to scramble onto the right side of history.

I believe the French president, Jacques Chirac, knows something in his heart: in the run-up to the Iraq war, George Bush and Tony Blair stretched the truth about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction — but they were not alone. Mr. Chirac also stretched the truth about his willingness to join a U.N.-led coalition against Iraq if Saddam was given more time and still didn’t comply with U.N. weapons inspections. I don’t believe Mr. Chirac ever intended to go to war against Saddam, under any circumstances. So history will record that all three of these leaders were probably stretching the truth – but with one big difference: George Bush and Tony Blair were stretching the truth in order to risk their own political careers to get rid of a really terrible dictator. And Jacques Chirac was stretching the truth to advance his own political career by protecting a really terrible dictator.

Something tells me that the picture of Saddam looking like some crazed werewolf may have shocked even Mr. Chirac and his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin: yes, boys, this is the creep you were protecting. History will also record that while the U.S. and Britain chose to be Saddam’s prosecutors, France chose to be his defense lawyer. So, no, it doesn’t surprise me that the French are now offering conscience money in the form of Iraqi debt relief. Something tells me Mssrs. Chirac and de Villepin were just assuming Iraq would end in failure, but with Saddam’s capture they’ve decided they’d better put a few chips on success.

Maybe. I’m more inclined to believe the French finally realized they weren’t going to see any of the debt money anyway and decided this approach was going to ultimately prove more lucrative.

We have entered a moment of truth in Iraq. With Saddam now gone, there are no more excuses for the political drift there. We are now going to get the answer to the big question I had before the war: Is Iraq the way it is because Saddam was the way he was? Or was Saddam the way he was because Iraq is the way it is — ungovernable except by an iron fist?

We have to give Iraqis every chance to prove it is the first, not the second. For starters, I hope we don’t hear any more chants from Iraqis of “Death to Saddam.” He’s now as good as dead. It’s time for Iraqis to stop telling us whom they want to die. Now we have to hear how they want to live and whom they want to live with. The Godfather is dead. But what will be his legacy? Is there a good Iraqi national family that can and wants to live together, or will there just be more little godfathers competing with one another? From my own visits, I think the good family scenario for Iraq is very possible, if we can provide security — but only Iraqis can tell us for sure by how they behave.

The way to determine whether Iraqis are willing to form the good family is how they use and understand their newfound freedom. The reason Iraqi politics has not jelled up to now is not only because of Saddam’s lingering shadow. It is because each of the major blocs — the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites — has been pushing maximalist demands for what it thinks is its rightful place in shaping and running a new Iraq. The Iraqi ship of state has broken up on these rocks many times before.

By risking their own political careers, George Bush and Tony Blair have, indeed, given Iraqis the gift of freedom. But it is not the freedom to simply shout about what they oppose. That is anarchy. Freedom is about limits, compromise and accepting responsibility. Freedom is the opportunity to assert your interests and the obligation to hear and compromise with the interests of others.

All true. But they’re going to need a lot of help. Given the unnatural borders and deep political-social-religious divisions within them, they’ll need institutions that can accomodate that diversity.

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. Steven says:

    I agree in re: the French. They know they ain’t gettin’ all their cash, so the best thing to do is be reasonable, curry some favor, and hope to get something.

  2. Kevin Drum says:

    Actually, the French have been making nice-nice noises ever since the war ended. I’m not sure what Friedman is talking about.

  3. I think the THREAT to keep them out of reconstruction contracts (I know it was announced as policy, but policies change.) … this threaat helped get them on board with debt restructuring.