August 25, 2003

Taking Responsibility

I donít know if we can reconstruct Iraq. I am optimistic, I am hopeful, but I wonít make a fool of myself and say it's inevitable.

When the US decided after so many decades of feet-dragging that it was in the same trench as the anti-Saddam resistance, I knew it was the proper side to be on. The Baath Party is on the wrong side of history. Everyone knows it. And I am constitutionally incapable of striking a pose of neutrality between genocidal monsters and their victims, especially when we have the power to do something about it.

But the morally right side of history isnít always the winning side. The Ayatollah Khomenei was on the wrong side in í79 in Iran, but he won anyway.

If nation-building fails, most in the world will blame us. They would be partly right to do so. No one forced us to take responsibility for Iraq. The burden is ours if we fail.

But that burden is not ours alone. We are not puppet masters or God. Iraq is not clay in our hands, and there are battles of wills going on in that country. Battles between Baathists and Islamo-fascists and liberal Iraqi democrats. Iraqis are responsible, too. Most of the heavy lifting will really be theirs.

Much of the world doesnít see it this way, but some in Iraq do. Here is Salam Pax, blogging from Baghdad.

Maybe we Iraqis did expect too much from the American invasion, we did hope there is going to be an easy way. Get rid of Saddam and have the Americans help us rebuild. I don't think like that anymore. I am starting to believe that the chaos we will go thru the next 5 or 10 years is part of the price we will *have* to pay to have our freedom. This Beirut-ification is the way to learn how we should live as a free country and respect each other; it is just too painful to admit. It is too painful to have to admit that the [burn it down to build it up] process is what we will have to go thru. There is an Arabic poet who wrote a line which my friend Raed had burned into my memory:
This nation needs to learn lessons in destruction.
Salam, remember. And hope. Your nation may have learned that lesson already.


UPDATE: Matt Yglesias has a post on the same theme and with the same title.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 25, 2003 12:32 AM
Comments

Michael,
Chief Wiggles is saying much of the same thing:
http://chiefwiggles.blog-city.com/read/198566.htm

But I wonder, even with all the rhetoric coming from this administration that "Iraqis have to rebuild their country", wither we have really provided the opportunity for them to really help. It sounds like the US governing authority there is rather distant from the common person. We keep saying "we want you to rebuild" but then we do not seem give any direction on what to rebuild and what to concentrate on. The US and the Iraqis should be equal partners in this endeavor and based on Salam's blogings this is not happening.

Posted by: Derek at August 25, 2003 01:40 AM

Michael,

I leave for the weekend and come back, and Joe and you have a great post repudiating the people who cheered the bombing of the UN, and I agree with the premise of your post about Iraq. You put Carl Sagan on your list of greatest Americans! Very nice! Maybe Tennessee is good for the soul!

Posted by: Kombiz at August 25, 2003 02:10 AM

Michael,
I believe that France, Germany and Russia will end up on the wrong side of history, along with the millions of placard-waving, Bush-bashing, anti-war mongers who never did quite manage to come up with a credible alternative to war against Saddam Hussein.
If the cynical carpers would just stop ranting and start helping, this mess in Iraq would soon become nothing more than a historical footnote.
Isn't that what we all want? A peaceful, democratic Iraq? Or am I being naive?
P.S. Still love your blog!

Posted by: suzanne plater at August 25, 2003 04:21 AM

Good thought. Both Michael and Salam breathe life into the expression 'freedom is not free.' The freest societies on earth were forged in crucibles of war, revolution, hardship and struggle -- often lasting decades. Similarly, freedom can't be delivered like a pizza by an invading army or, more cynically, delivered at the point of a gun. People have to choose it and sacrifice to attain it.

Even now, we who live in free societies must be reminded constantly that there will always be a price to be paid and that we must be willing to pay it. It must be infinitely more difficult for a brutalized people whose capacity for independent thought and action has been so effectively throttled by totalitarianism.

Posted by: Cosmo at August 25, 2003 08:53 AM

Derek - "We keep saying "we want you to rebuild" but then we do not seem give any direction on what to rebuild and what to concentrate on."
I agree - since at least the end of May it has been obvious that our total post-war planning prior to April was "Well, there are some exiles who want to go back and run things, so that's taken care of."

In furtherance of the Salam post -
* Iraqi blog Baghdad Burning* - "People are angry and frustrated and the American troops are the ones who are going to have to bear the brunt of that anger simply because the American administration is running the show, and making the mistakes."

He recognizes that we are acknowledging and trying to correct the mistakes, and that complaining is simply something people do - perhaps especially when things are improving, in impatience for more and faster improvements. A good companion piece to Salam's.

Posted by: John Anderson at August 25, 2003 10:42 AM

Good post, Michael. However, I would be worried about seeing a trend in American discussion towards stressing the Iraqi responsibility when we as a nation still seem so unserious about the effort to rebuild Iraq, and that includes our leadership.

I have posted about this today, in response to what I think was a good article by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times.

http://firefive.com/blog?year=2003&month=8&day=25&hour=12&minute=6

We (by which I mean Americans") still seem to be treating the effort to rebuild Iraq as an annoying chore rather than an opportunity to leave our mark on the course of history.

Making this sort of rallying call is where "liberals" usually do better then conservatives, and (present company excepted) liberals are not making that call.

As I point out in my post, a brand new baby boom is just going to college for the first time. We have the power to suceed in Iraq without any question, but we seem to be willing to risk failure for the sake of not making too great an effort.

Posted by: Mike Smith at August 25, 2003 10:43 AM

Making this sort of rallying call is where "liberals" usually do better then conservatives, and (present company excepted) liberals are not making that call.

What if I believe that we have essentially no chance of creating a democratic, free Iraq? At that point, what is my moral action?

Posted by: Kimmitt at August 25, 2003 11:23 AM

If the cynical carpers would just stop ranting and start helping, this mess in Iraq would soon become nothing more than a historical footnote.

I have ready many stupid things, Suzanne, but this might be the stupidest.

Posted by: Realish at August 25, 2003 11:31 AM

What if I believe that we have essentially no chance of creating a democratic, free Iraq? At that point, what is my moral action?

In that case, your moral actions include doing things like trying to convince your fellow citizens that you are right, and perhaps voting for Pat Buchanan in the next election.

(Howard Dean is already backing away from his anti-war stance.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A34389-2003Aug22.html

Do you honestly believe a Democratic administration will just abandon Iraq?)

Posted by: Mike Smith at August 25, 2003 11:41 AM

What if I believe that we have essentially no chance of creating a democratic, free Iraq?

I would say it's time for an attitude adjustment, Kimmitt. Despair and relentless negativity is unrealistic, unpersuasive, and unbecoming. I hope your question was theoretical.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 25, 2003 12:19 PM

What if I believe that we have essentially no chance of creating a democratic, free Iraq? At that point, what is my moral action?

Change your name to Steve Gilliard and preach doom and gloom.

Posted by: Court at August 25, 2003 01:12 PM

The event which put me over the edge was not the UN bombing, awful as it was, but this Slate article, which lays out in cold numbers how massively understaffed our occupation force in Iraq is.

Essentially, we will require a force of between 250 and 500,000 soldiers and another 25 to 50,000 police to appropriately scale up the successful efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo. No one has even vaguely suggested that a US, UN, or NATO force approach the 300,000 person level, much less the 500,000 person level.

Add to this Iraq's proximity to Saudi Arabia and Iran, two centers of Islamic terrorist activity, and you have a recipe for essentially certain failure.

So, what now? Which of the two things which will never happen do I advocate for? Do I advocate that we cut our losses and pull out, as that will save time, huge amounts of resources, and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of American lives? Or do I advocate that we internationalize the occupation force and triple its size, with the understanding that it absolutely positively will not be leaving Iraq for the next ten years?

I don't know; maybe we'll get lucky. If we are fortunate enough to elect Gov. Dean or Wesley Clark, they may have both the intelligence and fortitude to at least give us a fighting chance in Iraq. But, yeah, I'm despairing.

Posted by: Kimmitt at August 25, 2003 02:32 PM

Kimmitt,

I'm sorry you have more faith in the abilities of dictators and terrorists than you have in your own country.

Think about it this way. Baathism and theocratic Islamism cannot beat liberal democracy in the long term for one simple reason. People like liberal democracy when they get it, and they will fight to defend it. People hate Baathism and theocratic Islamism when they get it, and will fight to overthrow it. (See Iran.)

Worst case scenario: The Middle East will turn liberal-democratic after everything else has failed. (This was Salam Pax's point.) Best case scenario: We can help.

I see no evidence whatsoever that we cannot help. Point to an article that shows how we can help more. All fine and good. But wringing your hands and saying we are doomed to failure is, shall we say, unhelpful. It is also unrealistic. We have faced down worse than this, after all. And Americans are nothing if not good problem solvers.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 25, 2003 02:49 PM

What if I believe that we have essentially no chance of creating a democratic, free Iraq? At that point, what is my moral action?

It's SO much easier to throw your hands in the air, slam your head into the sand (or some other dark, smelly place) than it is to do something about it. If you feel it will take Clark or Dean to solve the problem, and I shudder even thinking about it, get off your ass and do something to get them in office!

Jeesh, anybody have any cheese to go with this?

Semper Fi

Posted by: RickM at August 25, 2003 03:00 PM

Also, needless to say, the consequences of simply pulling out of Iraq would be catastrophic for the Iraqis, the rest of the Middle East, and ourselves. "Catastrophic" is too tame a term, really.

Posted by: Christopher Luebcke at August 25, 2003 03:11 PM

Indeed. At this point, only the most extreme loony types advocate abandoning Iraq. No matter who is elected president in 2004, we will be staying for many years.

I am all for thoroughly examining all of the options for how we should conduct the occupation, up through and including valid criticism of how things have been handled so far. We need to be flexible, and change our approaches when change is neccessary. We need to be open minded. (Can the U.N. be involved without turning Iraq into the West Bank? I'm open to considering the options.)

But Kimmitt's kind of hand-wringing will only hurt us. As Totten has pointed out, we HAVE faced greater challenges before, and succeeded.

Posted by: Mike Smith at August 25, 2003 03:23 PM

Why is it some people seem to think the UN is the answer to all our problems? What is its success rate?

When did people lose faith that the US can do it. We did it in WWII when people didn't think we could. We did it in Korea when we were almost pushed off the peninsula. And we will continue to do it. Is this still about the failure in Vietnam?

It's really kind of sad to see people put more faith in evil dictators or the UN than the US. And to me, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. This defeatism does nothing but promote defeat.

Posted by: Court at August 25, 2003 03:27 PM

At the height of the "Cold War", we had 300,000 troops stationed in Europe. We currently have about 100,000 troops there. Do we even need that many? How about the Korean penninsula, do we really need as many troops there, now that we know the North Korean military is hollowing out?

How quickly can we train a new Iraqi military to take over?

These are the sort of questions we should be asking.

Posted by: Mike Smith at August 25, 2003 03:31 PM

I'd love a bumper sticker that said:

Not Every War is "Viet Nam"

Posted by: Mike Smith at August 25, 2003 03:33 PM

If you feel it will take Clark or Dean to solve the problem, and I shudder even thinking about it, get off your ass and do something to get them in office!

Way ahead of you.

Michael Kimmitt
Party Coordinator
Hawai'i for Dean
www.hawaiifordean.com

Posted by: Kimmitt at August 25, 2003 04:53 PM

That said, I lost faith that the US could do difficult things when President Bush took the executive in a judicial coup, ran a painfully incompetent administration, then had his actions validated by midterm elections which gave him control of both houses of Congress. You say that people who have liberal democracy like it and fight to keep it. From what I can see, an awful lot of people who have liberal democracy don't much care for it and fight to erode it. Fundamentalism's stock is still rising, and not just in Islamic countries.

2004's going to be a big deal. We're going to decide whether we want a theocratic banana republic or a democracy. The fact that it's an open question is the sort of thing which induces despair.

Posted by: Kimmitt at August 25, 2003 05:02 PM

We're going to decide whether we want a theocratic banana republic or a democracy.

I'm sorry, but that's just asinine.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 25, 2003 05:15 PM

Been reading a lot of Orcinus lately; this may have colored my perceptions.

I shouldn't think that it would be controversial that President Bush isn't terribly fond of democratic processes and institutions -- and, along with his high-level administrators and fellow travellers, has ridden a wave of fundamentalist Protestant populist sentiment.

On the other hand, maybe I just worry too much about this whole voting machine thing.

Posted by: Kimmitt at August 25, 2003 05:27 PM

Kimmit, the main Bush problem is that he's inherited a huge gov't, and made it it bigger and worse. It's the Dems, including Michael (too much for me), who believe and act as if gov't is the answer to most problems. (Reps just act that way lately.)

Iraq needs contract law enforcement -- courts which can order police to punish contract violators. So that small and medium Iraqi companies can be formed, and start creating wealth. Wealth creation is easily measured; it equals profit.

The security "needs" are dependent on the level of insecurity tolerable to the Iraqis -- who need local police forces, local elections ... maybe even homeowner associations and private local security agencies (including some old Baathists, but that's a bit inevitable).

The 500 000 police/ security forces will mostly be Iraqis, when they get there. But it's private property, and respect for other's property, that is the new culture being developed.

But I came here to congratulate Michael J. on a GREAT short story (above); didn't want to be the first to comment there. I wonder if there's an auto-biographical real experience mixed in. Bruce Chatwin would have loved it, I'm sure.

Posted by: Tom Grey at August 26, 2003 01:53 AM

Hey Realish. Check your spelling before you start calling other people stupid.

Posted by: suzanne at August 26, 2003 03:52 AM

Feel dark despair, Kimmitt:

Now that we're there, we're stuck... We have no choice. It's a matter of national security. If we leave and we don't get a democracy in Iraq, the result is very significant danger to the United States... Bringing democracy to Iraq is not a two-year proposition...

-- Howard Dean

http://www.highclearing.com/archivesuo/week_2003_08_24.html#004368

Posted by: Mike Smith at August 26, 2003 04:34 AM

Er, what you're saying is that Gov. Dean is endorsing one of the two things which are the best of our bad options.

Posted by: Kimmitt at August 26, 2003 02:56 PM



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