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.