War in Iraq: Folly of Nation Building

President Obama recently announced the official end of war in Iraq, ten years after we invaded Iraq presumably to find WMDs. It is well established now that we acted on wrong information. Moreover, our actions were quite unilateral and even if Iraq had WMDs there was no sign of that country’s involvement in 9/11. Regardless of the lack of justifications for the war we did “liberate” the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. We also participated in another recently concluded battle, which ended with Gaddafi’s death in Libya. If you recall Libya did not occupy our collective national consciousness in the same way as Iraq did and will continue to do, mostly because the engagement in Libya was almost “cost-free”. There were two reasons for this. First, we did not act unilaterally in Libya but as part of a broader NATO coalition. Second reason is, and this may be more important, that the NATO forces were actually aiding a popular Libyan uprising against Gaddafi. Iraq war was unpopular both here and in Iraq. Libyan uprising barely registered here and was obviously popular in Libya. Cost of war both in terms of money and human lives was unpalatable to both sides in the case of Iraq, not so with Libya. 

Libyans were very thankful for the help received from NATO. Iraqis on the other hand, happy though they were with Saddam’s capitulation, expressed gratitude grudgingly if at all. The reason is that people anywhere in the world do not like an occupational force no matter how noble and lofty the said force’s aims are. So while the US forces viewed themselves as liberators they were necessarily seen as oppressors by Iraqis. I grant that the Iraq situation was confounded by other political factors (oil, balancing Iraq against Iran, why did we not get rid of Saddam during the original gulf war) and was not a simple case of us overthrowing a dictator. But let us for a moment put aside the cynicism of politics and assume that we actually have a noble aim, untainted by any ulterior motives, of nation building based on democratic ideals. Does that give us the right to attack a country and impose our political/cultural beliefs and values? Are we entitled to tell them we know what’s best for you, you will only thank us later? More importantly, is this approach going to be successful? To answer all these questions we need to view a society as a collection of individual human beings and treat the society as a “super” individual.

One of the more basic truths about human nature is that we do not like unsolicited advice, no matter how beneficial, nor do we appreciate forceful attempts to change our behavior, irrespective of good intentions. Any true change in an individual needs to come from inside. Same holds true for a society. The spark and desire for democracy must start with-in for it to be sustainable. If a country is not ready for democracy no amount of external intervention will help. No wonder we had to stay in Iraq for so long and even after all the effort I am not sure what we have achieved. Imposing our way of life on people who are not receptive to our ideas is never going to work. All we can do is make sure that people everywhere get to see our way of life (in this hyper-connected information age it is going to happen anyway); we have to let them decide on their own that only true democratic ideals form the basis of a thriving society. As a parting gift, I recommend this movie, Manderlay, which highlights the pitfalls in assuming that everyone wants our way of life.

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4 comments on “War in Iraq: Folly of Nation Building

  1. Hey Kaps – funny thing – Ashish and I were talking about this topic just a few days ago. We were trying to define what ticked me off about the Iraq war more – Bush’s WMD claim or that he put US forces in harms way for something he had no issue meddling with or the fact that we stayed too long and created a mess that we still havent cleaned up.

    See Ashish was countering with the theory that maybe at the end of the day it was probably a ‘nobler’ thing to stay back and clean up, help re-build and deal with the consequences of taking out a dictator instead of fighting the drone war like in Obama is doing in Pakistan or lending air power to Libya and walking away – how are we solving the problems that we have created in Libya. I am not sure I have clear answer for him. Maybe that is the next discussion?

    Ofcourse, I share your beliefs. I think you articulate very well my point of view. (in a non-fuzzy way!)

    Happy New Year to you and Carmen and keep writing!

    • It’s a tough one. I don’t entirely disagree with Ashish. We had to stay back in Iraq since we created the mess in the first place. My main issue with nation building is that it is entirely hypocritical. We have always followed a policy of appeasement of dictatorial regimes in countries of strategic importance to ensure “stability” in the name of national interests. Fast forward decades later and we pretend to “liberate” the people in these countries from the same dictators that we helped prop up in the first place. I like the role we played in Libya. We provided assistance where it was asked for. I am not sure who should help clean up Libya, one would think this is the ideal situation for UN to step up to the plate.

      • I think there are a plethora of ways to argue this one, all of which are valid, but I personally can’t help but think to myself “why are we even rebuilding elsewhere?”

  2. Kapil — Let me count the ways we screwed up on Iraq. We “cherry-picked” the intelligence we would use in determining to go into Iraq, relying on the likes of Ahmed Chalabi, who fed us a lot of nonsense about being welcomed as saviors, and a guy the German intel people code-named “Curveball,” because he lacked credibility. We used chance encounters of Iraqis and suspected associates of Al Qaida in Prague as proof positive that Iraq was involved in 9-11. When we went in, our forces were “light and more mobile,” per Rumsfeld’s conception of the “new Army,” and we lacked the resources to secure the ammo dumps as we discovered, and to provide stabilization and security after the capitulation. Rampant looting and other criminal activity were ascribed to “a bunch of dead-enders” by our Sec Def. Then J. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, our head of the provisional government, disestablished the Iraqi Army instead of co-opting it to maintain stability in the country, and barred members of the Baath party from any role in a new government. As in Nazi Germany, many citizens found it necessary to join the party in order to gain employment. So, we created a whole cadre of people who vehemently resented our presence — a disenfranchised army and a corps of former government workers who knew Iraq government but were no longer able to lend their expertise. And, just to make another point, there is nothing more dangerous than an army with nothing to do. And of course, there were no WMDs found, nor any means of manufacturing them. And, in order to enter Iraq, we pulled our assets out of Afghanistan before we had completed our mission there. Now, our situation in Iraq is deteriorating, and it appears that Iran is well on its way to becoming the regional hegemon. And, they’re enriching uranium!

    Hope you and Carmen had a great Christmas and New Year’s holiday

    John S

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