Iraq - Why We Failed


(This opinion piece appeared in the Retriever Weekly on April19, 2007.)

Previously, I mentioned that the United States made a mistake in invading Iraq. Not because they failed to find any “weapons of mass destruction”, which I believe Saddam had the smarts to get into neighboring Syria long before the first American humvee rolled across the border.

No, the sin the U.S. committed in Iraq was in assuming that they were bringing with them something better for the Iraqi people. It’s easy to understand why Americans might have felt this way. After all, Hussein was a brutal tyrant who oppressed most of his population, and was responsible for a bushel basket of “crimes against humanity” during his reign as dictator.

Even so, we were wrong in thinking that we had something better.

This idea that the American style of government is the greatest in the world, and that it’s only a matter of time before all people bask in its warming rays, goes way back to the heady days after the American Revolution.

In 1789, with the American experiment still in its infancy, the French Revolution unleashed forces that not only overthrew a monarchy, but also resulted in mass executions in a virtual police state. Yet despite this, many of our founding fathers rejoiced at the news. People like Thomas Jefferson applauded the French people and downplayed their excesses – all because he believed they were emulating the American experience in republican democracy.

Our history is replete with American attempts to export our representative form of government to other nations, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much. As the targets for Americanization shrink, they tend to become less and less industrialized – places like Iraq.

The truth is that some peoples, in their present state of development, are not yet ready for a parliamentary life. Religious and sectarian rivalries, tribal ties and ethnic hatreds run too deep in some countries, and only a strong-arm dictator can keep the lid on the boiling pot. It may not be pretty to watch, and it certainly goes against all of our republican instincts, but sometimes, tyranny is better.

Such a case was the old Yugoslavia, led by Marshal Josip Tito from 1943 to 1980. Tito's Yugoslavia was technically a Communist state; however, Tito remained independent of Stalin and the U.S.S.R. The important thing to note was that Tito’s dictatorial rule kept the Serbs and the Croats from killing each other for four decades. Shortly after he died, Communism fell; Yugoslavia became a republic and then disintegrated into the nations we see today. Ethnic “cleansing”, mass murders and genocide followed shortly thereafter. Remember Slobodan Milošević? The lid was off the pot.

In Iraq, Saddam was another run-of-the-mill dictator, a strong man who had his political enemies killed early on and then ruled with terror and violence. Nevertheless, it worked. Iraq was stable. There were no competing Sunni and Shi’a militia trying to kill everyone in the country as fast as they could. Then, in April 2003, we got rid of Hussein.

Since that time, it is thought that hundreds of thousand of Iraqis have died in sectarian violence. Now Uncle Sam struggles desperately to keep the lid on the pot. If we ever pull out, the lid will be off the pot, with cataclysmic results. A formerly stable nation in the Middle East is now the focal point of regional instability, and threatens to become the first battleground of the next world war.

The lesson that should have been learned by now is that representative democracy is not the appropriate form of government for every country, and that, for some nations, a brutal tyrant may be the lesser of many evils. In Iraq, we rid the world of a brutal, evil regime, this is true. However, for the Iraqi people, the brutal, evil regime may have been the lesser of a great many evils, and now, four years post-Saddam, they and we will have to live with those evils for many years to come.


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