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September 12, 2006

Understanding Why Iraq
Is a Disaster


by Thomas Gale Moore

Several Democrats and even some Republicans have attributed the disaster in Iraq to the way in which the war was fought. There have been calls for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. Certainly the Pentagon in fighting this war has made serious errors. From the beginning, when looting broke out, the military had no plans to bring order to the country. In fact, Rumsfeld and other high Defense Department officials had no plans for what to do after the conquest of the country. The dismissal of the Iraqi army has also been blamed for the outbreak of chaos and violence. Many observers, including some who were strong supporters of the invasion, have attributed the inability to stamp out the insurgency to an insufficient number of troops. Rumsfeld, who has been actively pushing a lean military dependent on high-tech weapons rather than boots on the ground, has resisted calls for more soldiers. Without doubt, lack of planning and errors in judgment have contributed to the growing insurgency.

Many military experts have attributed the growth and strength of the violence to the failure to employ valid counterinsurgency tactics. Little effort was made, they argue, to win the minds and hearts of local inhabitants. Shooting first and asking questions later may be the safest tactic in the short run, but it builds hatred and anger as innocent women and children are killed or maimed. Whether it would have been possible to win over the public is open to debate. The coalition forces did not occupy the Kurdish north, and the Kurds have remained largely supportive of the Americans. Some of the Shias who had suffered from Saddam Hussein's reign did initially welcome the toppling of his regime. To this day, a number of them still support the coalition forces. The British contingent, concentrated in the southern part of Iraq, which is primarily Shia, have bragged that they have been able to patrol without helmets and have had a good relationship with the local people. Unfortunately, this benign occupation has become more violent; no longer is the south peaceful. The level of violence, however, is still less than that in the Sunni areas. Whether the relative success in the south is attributable to better efforts at winning the hearts and minds of the population or whether it is that the local people gained greatly by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime is again open to argument. The answer is probably both; but, as we are seeing, violence is increasing in Shia areas as well, and leading figures from that sect are calling for resisting the occupation.

In the sections of the country that are primarily Sunni, violence has been unrelenting. The Sunnis have been strongly opposed to the occupation and the toppling of their leader, Saddam. No matter how hard the military tried, the chances that American troops could have won the hearts and minds of many Sunnis seem remote.

Another school of thought claims that Iraqis are not ready for democracy. There is nothing in their history to suggest the willingness to compromise and allow others to exercise limited powers that characterizes a democracy. Most countries with multiple ethnic, religious, or tribal groups have difficulty managing a democratic government. Typically, one of the groups will seize power and put down the others. Switzerland is one of the few multi-ethnic societies that work and it does so by relegating most powers to the various cantons; the central government handles mainly foreign affairs and defense. Iraq is made up of various groups, but the largest is the Shias, who have been dominated by the Sunnis in the past. Thus the tensions and simmering conflicts make a working democracy very improbable. Only a federal state whose central government had weak powers would have much chance of being viable.

Blaming the chaos in Iraq on a failure of planning or on a failure to use the correct tactics is similar to the effort by some Marxists to blame the fall of communism in the Soviet Union on a failure to practice communism correctly. It never addresses the root issue: the war could not be won, because it was a colossal mistake.

While all the factors listed above make the occupation more difficult, they ignore the basic problem: that is, a foreign power occupies Iraq. Not only is it foreign, but it is from a predominantly Christian country, and Iraqis are almost all Muslims. Many Muslims, if not most, see the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as a modern version of the Crusades. While to most Westerners, especially Americans, the Crusades are simply an episode in ancient history with no relevance to today, most Arabs feel quite differently. They see the foundation of Israel as an effort by the West to retake the Holy Land of Palestine using the Jewish state as a proxy. The Muslims see the Jews expanding from their original mandate to occupy more and more of Palestine. The recent invasion of Lebanon confirms their perception of the advance of Christianity/Judaism into the Middle East.

Some evangelical Christians adhere to the view that Jewish occupation of greater Palestine will lead to the Second Coming, in which those who do not accept Christ, Jews and Muslims alike, will be damned to eternal Hell. These fundamentalists therefore support Israel's expanding settlements in the West Bank. Muslims point to those American religious groups as proof that the U.S. invaded Iraq to subjugate Muslims who oppose the Jewish state and its efforts to occupy the Holy Land.

For most Americans, products of the largely secular West, it is hard to understand the depth of feeling that the occupation of an Arab/Muslim country generates among the inhabitants. The history of the British experience in Iraq indicates that holding that country would be a bloody and violent enterprise. When the British put Iraq together at the end of World War I, they experienced a growing insurgency, which ultimately forced them to withdraw. The U.S. is simply following in their steps with the same result violence directed against the occupier. Sooner or later, we will have to follow the British example and pull out. Later means more deaths and more violence. The sooner we get out of this disaster, the better.

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Thomas Gale Moore is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics and has taught at Carnegie Institution of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Michigan State University, UCLA, and in the Stanford Business School. He has written numerous peer-reviewed economic articles and several books.

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