U.S. No Longer Expects Democracy in Iraq

The Washington Post this morning fronts a long piece by Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer with reports from unnamed officials who say the U.S. has lowered its aims in Iraq from a thriving democracy to an Islamist republic that can grow into a democracy one day.

U.S. Lowers Sights On What Can Be Achieved in Iraq

The Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally envisioned during the transition due to end in four months, according to U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad. The United States no longer expects to see a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society in which the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges, U.S. officials say. “What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground,” said a senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion. “We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we’re in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning.”

Administration officials still emphasize how much they have achieved despite the chaos that followed the invasion and the escalating insurgency. “Iraqis are taking control of their country, building a free nation that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself. And we’re helping Iraqis succeed,” President Bush said yesterday in his radio address.

Iraqi officials yesterday struggled to agree on a draft constitution by a deadline of tomorrow so the document can be submitted to a vote in October. The political transition would be completed in December by elections for a permanent government.


U.S. officials say no turning point forced a reassessment. “It happened rather gradually,” said the senior official, triggered by everything from the insurgency to shifting budgets to U.S. personnel changes in Baghdad.

The ferocious debate over a new constitution has particularly driven home the gap between the original U.S. goals and the realities after almost 28 months. The U.S. decision to invade Iraq was justified in part by the goal of establishing a secular and modern Iraq that honors human rights and unites disparate ethnic and religious communities. But whatever the outcome on specific disputes, the document on which Iraq’s future is to be built will require laws to be compliant with Islam. Kurds and Shiites are expecting de facto long-term political privileges. And women’s rights will not be as firmly entrenched as Washington has tried to insist, U.S. officials and Iraq analysts say.

“We set out to establish a democracy, but we’re slowly realizing we will have some form of Islamic republic,” said another U.S. official familiar with policymaking from the beginning, who like some others interviewed would speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity. “That process is being repeated all over.”

U.S. officials now acknowledge that they misread the strength of the sentiment among Kurds and Shiites to create a special status. The Shiites’ request this month for autonomy to be guaranteed in the constitution stunned the Bush administration, even after more than two years of intense intervention in Iraq’s political process, they said. “We didn’t calculate the depths of feeling in both the Kurdish and Shiite communities for a winner-take-all attitude,” said Judith S. Yaphe, a former CIA Iraq analyst at the National Defense University.

In the race to meet a sequence of fall deadlines, the process of forging national unity behind the constitution is largely being scrapped, current and former officials involved in the transition said. “We are definitely cutting corners and lowering our ambitions in democracy building,” said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University democracy expert who worked with the U.S. occupation government and wrote the book “Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq.” “Under pressure to get a constitution done, they’ve lowered their own ambitions in terms of getting a document that is going to be very far-reaching and democratic. We also don’t have the time to go through the process we envisioned when we wrote the interim constitution — to build a democratic culture and consensus through debate over a permanent constitution,” he said.

The goal now is to ensure a constitution that can be easily amended later so Iraq can grow into a democracy, U.S. officials say.

There’s little question that the administration made some major miscalculations in the planning for the post-Saddam part of this war. The scope and nature of the so-called “insurgency”–mostly, the massive influx of foreign terrorists–was grossly underestimated.

Still, one must not confuse “hopes” with “goals.” A political system with legitimate popular sovereignty emerging in Iraq would by the end of 2005 would have been simply unthinkable when President Bush took office. The number of people, even among the senior levels of the Bush Administration or on the editorial board of The Weekly Standard, who thought Iraq would be Switzerland-on-the-Euphrates by now was miniscule.

The United States, which was founded well over two centuries ago by people raised in the Western tradition and with leaders who were on the cutting edge of Enlightenment thinking, is nonetheless in many ways a Christian republic. Yes, we have a strong tradition of religious tolerance and an ever-growing “wall of separation” thanks to the 1st Amendment and decades of judicial rulings. Nonetheless, it is undeniable–even to non-theists such as myself–that Christianity is a cornerstone of our public policy to this day.

It would be inconceivable, really, that an Iraq where people were free to vote their preferences into law would not emerge with Islam as at least a nominal part of the constitution and as part of the fabric of governance. “Islamic republic” is not synonymous with “theocracy.” There is no indication in this report or any other that I’ve seen that Iraq will be ruled by the mullahs at the end of the day.

Similarly, the United States began as a confederation and moved into a looser federation as the need arose. And, despite having much more in common and much less history of acrimony than the three major Iraqi factions have had, we nonetheless had a bloody civil war four score and seven years into the American Experiment and maintain substantial regional autonomy to this day. That the Kurds and Shiites would want the same was predictable. Beyond that, it is a desirable outcome in that it is likely the only chance for the longer term survival of “Iraq” as an intact entity.

So, I disagree with Jeralyn Merritt that this constitutes “f-a-i-l-u-r-e.” Democratic politics entails compromise. Even in war, absent subjugation following unconditional surrender–something we surely would not have wanted in Iraq given our long term goals–one can not impose one’s preferences entirely.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stan says:

    it is kind of like giving stupid kids a passing grade just to move them on.

  2. Ken Taylor says:

    The emerging Iraq is far from a failure. On the contrary when you take into account Iraq’s violent and confusing, (even under Saddam) past the fact that all factions are even agreeing on anything is a major step. Sure we had expectations of a “democratic,” Iraq, but ultimately we also knew that the government would be one of their own making. Even with an Islamic Republic, a free and very westernized Iraq will be a cornerstone for liberties that other countries in the region do not have and may very well be the catalyst to free governments springing up throughout and the beginning of the end to the Islamic terrorists.

  3. Herb says:

    Ken, I hope you are right, but I have always thought that any attempt to have a democracy in the Muslim world as we know it was going to be difficult if not impossible.

    I don’t think it possible to take a nation that has always known torture, killing and women that have no rights, and lead them to freedoms that they never experienced.

    The entire Muslim community thruout the world has only known theft, killing and lack of respect for life since they came into existence.

    The Islamic faith teaches them that killing is acceptable, disrespect for life is acceptable and even suicide is OK. What makes anyone think that you can take a group like this and give them freedom overnight. They just can’t handle it.

    And, everyone living is the Islamic world has not been their leader yet. LOL

    The only answer form a US standpoint is to let them go as they want and try to keep them in line with the rest of the world by any means possible or necessary.

  4. Charlie (Colorado) says:

    Herb, you’re confusing “radical Wahhabist fascism” with “Islam.”

  5. Lt bell says:

    bushCo does not even expect democracy in America-
    they want a theocracy –
    So? what else is new?

  6. Fred says:

    Turkey borders on Iraq and is both Islamic and a democracy. It can be done.

  7. Herb says:

    Charlie, I’m not confusing anything with anything, It seems that you are the one who is confused. I just said that you can’t take someone that has been born, raised, educated, worships in an Islamic dictatorship and lives like a pawn in such a dictatorship for the last 2000 years, then give them freedom. They just can’t handle it.
    The only life they know is one of torture, killing and a total disrespect for life and freedom. It will take years of education for them to be able to know what true freedom is.

    And Richard, Looks like you are just another babbling, sore loser, anti American, liberal that will and do anything for Un American bigots like Dean, Gore, Kennedy, Kerry and the rest of the sore loser brigade

  8. Neo-Progressive says:

    “And Richard, Looks like you are just another babbling, sore loser, anti American, liberal that will and do anything for Un American bigots like Dean, Gore, Kennedy, Kerry and the rest of the sore loser brigade”

    Here we go again. In the black and white world of the Bushites, if you oppose their view, you are unamerican. Don’t these people realize how dumb, unsophisticated, and uneducated that line of thinking is? Ever since Bush stole the elections, this country has been turned over to grunting, moronic, cavemen. Ignorance and stupidity reign supreme.

    No wonder the Blue States are rich and the Red States poor…

  9. Herb says:

    In the Neo Progressive comment

    ” the sunnies are reluctant to abandon the power they have had for centuries”

    Does that remind you of the Democrats of today?

    Next thing you know is the sore loser Democrats will engage in terrorism like the Sunnies are doing now.

    They are now engaged in verbal terrorism with the American People as we all can see and witness.

  10. anjin-san says:

    Jeeze Herb, are you really as ignorant as you sound? Since Muhammad was born in the year 570, I am a bit curious how there could have been Islamic dictatorships 2000 years ago.

    Perhaps you should actually try cracking a history book someday. If you did you might learn that there was a fairly advanced civilization in the Muslim world while Europeans were mired in the dark ages.

    Another hint for you Herb, the exercise of free speech, even by those who disagree with you, is not Anti-American. In fact, there is nothing more American then free speech and a healthy political discourse.

  11. Richard says:


    You really think it is a triumph for democracy when Iran takes over Iraq without firing a shot?

    You really believe Sistiani and the Shiia in the government are INDEPENDENT of Iran where they spent years in exile and maintain close high level contacts with the current government?

    Do you think it was worth 1,800 plus US lives and two hundred million simply to remove a tin horn dictator?

  12. Neo-Progressive says:

    “Another hint for you Herb, the exercise of free speech, even by those who disagree with you, is not Anti-American. In fact, there is nothing more American then free speech and a healthy political discourse.”

    Thank you, Anjin-san.

    Right-wingers do not believe in free speech and dissent. How very unAmerican!

  13. McGehee says:

    Back then it was going to be a cakewalk.

    Links, please. The nearest thing I remember to anyone saying that was that it wasn’t going to be a quagmire.

    Is that how your thinking goes, DC? “Not quagmire” equals “cakewalk”?

    ‘Cause if so, your problem is obvious.

  14. Rob says:

    Here’s a document dating back to ’03 citing “cakewalk”; not a direct quote, but O’Hanlon’s a pretty smart dude, he doesn’t just make stuff up.


  15. Anderson says:

    My goodness.

    What would it take for you people to admit that Bush has failed at anything?

    What would it take?

    Are you able to imagine anything that would make you say “Wow, Bush really fouled this up, and it’s all his fault?”

    Because if not, there is something a little psychopathic here, in the strict sense of “divorced from reality.”

  16. Herb says:

    Oh yeah,
    “there was a fairly advanced civilization in the Muslim world while Europeans were mired in the dark ages”

    They sure are advanced now.

    Killing innocent women and children

    producing suicide bombers

    Beheading anyone that disagrees with them.

    Cutting the hands off people.

    Tell me they are civilized ?
    tell me all about this advanced civilization?

  17. Herb says:

    Well, it’s about my bedtime and I think I am going to retire as so as I watch the local news.

    I would like for everyone to know that I have had a wonderful day. I started today feeling very good and then turned on to read OTB like I do everyday. low and behold, I read this article and observed the comments. I just couldn’t pass this chance up and have a good laugh, so I made a comment of my own. And as expected I started to read comments from the Jane and Joe Fondas of the world. It was then that I thought that I would like for everyone to really get a good look at the looney left. They did not disappoint me, they came out in droves. It really made my day and I want to thank those lefty looneys that obliged. So now, I will retire knowing full well that I at least got the liberals worked up and and had some great amusement in doing so.. mighty mite.

  18. anjinSan says:

    OK Herb I guess you are as ignorant as you sound.

  19. AnjinSan says:

    You know, I can’t wonder what Jesus would have to say about the thousands of innocents Bush’s war has killed in Iraq. I mean would Bush’s supporters really want to know?

  20. LJD says:

    Reality check, people. The post was about the U.S. no longer expecting democracy in Iraq.

    This situation has developed with the free exchange of ideas in Iraq’s provisional government- something that has NEVER happened before. Now, they are to choose their own form of government, and take responsibility for it. No one could have forseen, exactly, how this process would play out.

    This is not about the “Bush crimes”, this is not even about the U.S. We are only providing the opportunity for this exchange to occur. We are accomplishing things that are unprecedented in history.

    Interesting how bad the lefties want to impose their special kind of socialism on this M.E. nation. As for those who cannot collect their thoughts in only one post, or who don’t follow the subject matter, interesting how much you have to say sitting in your comfortable home, relatively free from danger, and enjoying the protections of OUR constitution.

  21. anonymous says:

    Do a google for “Iraq” and “cakewalk” and see what you get. Like this

  22. LJD says:

    Typical bait and switch, left-wing argument. Let’s try to stay on subject here.
    The article referenced clearly refers to the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, and the “liberation” that took place in the first phase of the war, not the occupation. Here’s a news flash: It WAS a “cake-walk”.

  23. anonymous says:

    LJD, please refrain from the name calling. You don’t know my political affiliation. I have a problem with the war, so do many conservatives. You’re more mentally and morally bankrupt if you believe you can separate the removal of Saddam from the aftermath. The force planning (or lack thereof)for the war and the ensuing occupation despite the warning of people who knew better (ala GEN Shinseki) was a failure. No matter what shade of lipstick this pig is wearing, it’s still a pig.

  24. LJD says:


    If you continually act like a liberal, at some point people will associate you with them.

    First, I did not call YOU or any one else a name. I merely typified the argument you were making.

    Second, if you want to argue that the occupation cannot be seperated from the invasion, then come up with an article that references just that. Don’t try to pass off something unrelated, said before the war, as some prediction of the aftermath.

  25. anonymous says:

    LJD – Remember the overall campaign was not based on just the capitulation of the Iraqi Army. Do you recall Phase IV of the operation? That was the part that failed miserably due to inadequate forces which Eric Shinseki warned of. I don’t need no stinkin’ article by anyone to validate my view. If we’d invested in proper manning of Phase IV, the insurgency wouldn’t be where it is today.

  26. LJD says:

    “If we’d invested in proper manning of Phase IV, the insurgency wouldn’t be where it is today.”
    Says you and your crystal ball…

    Shinkseki saying that “A” would occur if “B” did not happen, and then “A” occurring, does not necessarily establish cause and effect.

    I caught you spreading propaganda, with an unrelated article. Dumbocrat, liberal, or not, if you want to make your point, back it up. There’s enough negative press out there without people making shit up.