America's Failure in Iraq

From Richard Cohen's Op-Ed in the Washington Post:

...I could not imagine being a suicide bomber or a member of a death squad -- or killing someone because he was a Shiite or a Sunni. As there was in Vietnam, there is a piece of Iraq -- its culture, it religions, its history -- that we do not understand. This war has lasted longer than we expected not just because we were inept or understaffed or fired the Baathists or discharged the army -- but because we don't understand the country. For instance, an Iraqi government that reacts lethargically to American proposals moved with surprising alacrity to hang Saddam Hussein. Even late in the game, we didn't see it coming.


I have some questions. When politicians and commentators detail all that the Bush administration did wrong, I wonder whether any of it really matters. Would things have turned out differently if we had done everything right? Was Iraq so "broken" we never could have fixed it? Was Hussein's despotism an avoidable tragedy, or was it, instead, a tragic necessity? I wonder about all these things. I tend to think now we never could have made it work.

Now, of course, everyone looks like an idiot. Bremer was an idiot and Garner was an idiot and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Cheney and all the generals, with the exception of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who called for lots and lots of troops and was sidelined. But these men are not really idiots. They were merely wrong, sometimes on account of arrogance, but they were doing what they thought was the right thing. They simply didn't know what they didn't know. They didn't know a damned thing about Iraq.
"They didn't know a damned thing about Iraq." I would argue that, at least among the civilian leadership, the fault runs even deeper: They didn't care that they didn't know a damned thing about Iraq.

Cohen spends most of his op-ed comparing Iraq to Vietnam. I've learned that as somebody who was born over a decade after the helicopters left the roof-tops, I don't have the expertise to make such comparisons - so I'll only make an observation about Iraq. If you feel it applies to Vietnam as well, feel free to make the connection.

America failed in Iraq because her people and her leaders went into Iraq assuming that the people of Iraq wanted the same things, both personally and geo-politically, that Americans wanted.

This is a monument to ethnocentrism not just because it's true, but because it needed to be pointed out.

After Bush stopped pretending that invading Iraq was about disarming Saddam and/or preventing cooperation between Saddam (the Middle Easts most secular dictator) and terroristic religious extremists, his 'new' goal became turning Iraq into a secular, moderate, pro-western democracy in the middle of the Middle East. Oil conspiracies aside, the CEO president decided that he was going to set up his 'Shining City on the Hilltm' brand in another location.

But this isn't just your run of the mill 'new location to better serve you!' This is the equivalent of CVS building a new store right across the street from a Rite-Aid. This is about putting your competition out of business.

It's a good strategy.

Or rather, it could have been a good strategy. The problem was that BushCo. thought that they knew what the local population wanted without doing any consumer research.

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Getting out of a less and less useful metaphor, BushCo. told us (and themselves) that Iraqis wanted a peaceful, unified, inclusive, secular, pro-western democracy without actually finding out if that was true.

Iraqis do want a peaceful and perhaps a democratic Iraq. It turns out that the pro-western, secular, unified and inclusive parts of BushCo's vision might not be shared by a significant portion of the Iraqi population.

While the vast majority of Iraqis aren't blowing themselves up or engaging in Sunni vs. Shiite killings, enough of the population agrees with the ends (if not the means) to perpetuate the chaos.

America is failing in Iraq because the American vision for Iraq is not the same as the Iraqi vision for Iraq.

20,000 more troops won't change that. More money for reconstruction won't change that. Most importantly, training more Iraqi troops won't change that. It's very simple: Most Iraqi Sunnis want a Sunni dominated Iraq. Most Iraqi Shiites want a Shiite dominated Iraq. And Iraqi Kurds don't really want to be part of Iraq.

That should have been obvious before the invasion but the civilian planners of the war "didn't know a damned thing about Iraq." Perhaps the sectarian divides could have been overcome if it had been taken into account from the beginning. We'll never know. Debating that now is pointless. By proceeding with the invasion without addressing that gaping hole in their strategy, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and every other planner of the War in Iraq attempted to build a nation without a foundation - the endorsement of the governed.

After that colossal omission, even if no other mistake was made, the ability of the United States to create an Iraq that even remotely resembled the Iraq it envisioned is, at best, debatable.

Let's not equivocate. After forgetting to see if Iraqis wanted the Iraq we envisioned, 'success' was - and is - impossible.

* * * * *

Mr. Cohen, if in a round-about way, correctly identifies why America is struggling in Iraq. It would be nice, in the face of thousands of American casualties, to see him have the courage to take that realization to its logical conclusion: Anything other than withdrawal will simply be throwing American blood and treasure into a lost cause.

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