An End to Illusion
We should downplay expectations.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the (forthcoming) May 3, 2004, issue of National Review.

Iraq seems to have returned to relative stability for the moment. The militia of Moqtada al-Sadr has withdrawn from cities in the south. The power play by the radical cleric did not herald the broad Shiite uprising that many feared, and that was played up by the American press. But his mini-putsch gave the U.S. a glimpse at the abyss in Iraq.

Since the conclusion of the war, the Bush administration has shown a dismaying capacity to believe its own public relations. The post-war looting was explained away as the natural and understandable exuberance of a newly-liberated people. (Now some Coalition officials suggest that a crackdown would have sped the reconstruction.) Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld denied the obvious reality of a guerrilla resistance and compared it to urban street crime in the United States. Every piece of good news has been hailed as turning the corner, even as the insurgency has remained stubbornly strong.

It is easy now to pick at what seem to have been errors in the occupation. There probably weren’t enough troops. The administration probably wasn’t determined enough to get international help, even on its own terms–although this would have had to happen in an environment poisoned by U.N. fecklessness and French bad faith in the run-up to the war. The administration clearly wasn’t ready for the magnitude of the task that rebuilding and occupying Iraq would present.

Even if the administration had avoided these mistakes and made all moves correctly, it is still possible Iraq would be very messy. But this concession points to an intellectual mistake made prior to the occupation: an underestimation in general of the difficulty of implanting democracy in alien soil, and an overestimation in particular of the sophistication of what is fundamentally still a tribal society and one devastated by decades of tyranny. This was largely, if not entirely, a Wilsonian mistake. The Wilsonian tendency has grown stronger in conservative foreign-policy thought in recent years, with both benefits (idealism should occupy an important place in American foreign policy, and almost always has) and drawbacks (as we have seen in Iraq, the world isn’t as malleable as some Wilsonians would have it).

But Iraq was not a Wilsonian–or a “neoconservative”–war. It was broadly supported by the Right as a war of national interest. The primary purpose of the war was always to protect U.S. national security, by removing a destabilizing and radical influence in the strategically crucial Persian Gulf and eliminating a potential threat to the United States. President Bush deserves great credit for grasping this nettle. The current task in Iraq is also driven by national-security concerns. Getting chased from Iraq would make it open season on U.S. interests throughout the Middle East. Allowing radicals to prevail there would be a sharp setback in the War on Terror. And forging a non-fascist, non-radical, non-hostile government in Iraq could affect the entire region’s geopolitics for the better. Success in post-war Iraq therefore is necessary primarily to serve U.S. interests, secondarily to assist Iraqis.

In light of recent events, however, we should downplay expectations. If we leave Iraq in some sort of orderly condition, with some sort of legitimate non-dictatorial government and a roughly working economy, we will be doing very well. The first step toward that goal is dealing harshly with our enemies. We must re-establish the prestige and authority that were badly frayed when we watched a crowd of thugs desecrate American bodies in Fallujah. Just as important is the political process. Part of what is happening in Iraq now is a nationalist reaction to being governed by a foreign occupying force. We should do our best to stick to the June 30th deadline for a handover of power. The Governing Council, which appears to lack a deep well of legitimacy, should be dissolved and the “loya jirga option”–the selection of a broadly representative assembly that can in turn elect a cabinet–pursued.

Ultimately, even if our choices now can help or hurt, it is Iraqis who have to save Iraq. It is their country, not ours. In coming weeks and months, we will have to defer to the authorities we hope will eventually take control, in the process endorsing compromises that we will consider less than ideal. But it is time for reality to drive our Iraq policy, unhindered by illusions or wishful thinking. We should do what we can to give Iraqis a chance at a better future, then pray that they take it.