The Importance of Losing the War

The basic mistake of American policy in Iraq is not that the Pentagon -- believing the fairy tales told it by Iraqi exile groups and overriding State Department advice -- forgot, when planning "regime change," to bring along a spare government to replace the one it was smashing.

The mistake was not that, once embarked on running the place, the administration did not send enough troops to do the job. Not that a civilian contingent to aid the soldiers was lacking. Not that the Baghdad museum, the Jordanian Embassy, the United Nations and Imam Ali mosque, among other places, were left unguarded. Not that no adequate police force, whether American or Iraqi, was provided to keep order generally. Not that the United States, seeking to make good that lack, then began to recruit men from the most hated and brutal of Saddam's agencies, the Mukhabarat.

It is not that, in an unaccountable and unparalleled lapse in America's once sure-fire technical know-how, Iraq's electrical, water and fuel systems remain dysfunctional. Not that the administration has erected a powerless shadow government composed in large measure of the same clueless exiles that misled the administration in the first place.

Nor is it that the administration has decided to privatize substantial portions of the Iraqi economy before the will of the Iraqi people in this matter is known. Not that the occupation forces have launched search-and-destroy operations that estrange and embitter a population that increasingly despises the United States. Not that, throughout, a bullying diplomacy has driven away America's traditional allies.

All these blunders and omissions are indeed mistakes of American policy, and grievous ones, but they are secondary mistakes. The main mistake of American policy in Iraq was waging the war at all. That is not a conclusion that anyone should have to labor to arrive at.

Something like the whole world, including most of its governments and tens of millions of demonstrators, plus the UN Security Council, Representative Dennis Kucinich, Governor Howard Dean, made the point most vocally before the fact. They variously pointed out that the Iraqi regime gave no support to al-Qaeda, predicted that the United States would be unable to establish democracy in Iraq by force (and that therefore no such democracy could serve as a splendid model for the rest of the Middle East), warned that "regime change" for purposes of disarmament was likely to encourage other countries to build weapons of mass destruction, and argued that the allegations that Iraq already had weapons of mass destruction and was ready to use them at any moment (within forty-five minutes after the order was delivered, it was said) were unproven.

All these justifications for the war are now in history's ash heap, never to be retrieved -- adding a few largish piles to the mountains of ideological claptrap (of the left, the right and what have you) that were the habitual accompaniment of the assorted horrors of the twentieth century.

Recognition of this mistake -- one that may prove as great as the decision to embark on the Vietnam War -- is essential if the best (or at any rate the least disastrous) path out of the mess is to be charted. Otherwise, the mistake may be compounded, and such indeed is the direction in which a substantial new body of opinion now pushes the United States.

In this company are Democrats in Congress who credulously accepted the Bush administration's arguments for the war or simply caved in to administration pressure, hawkish liberal commentators in the same position and a growing minority of right-wing critics.

They now recommend increasing American troop strength in Iraq. Some supported the war and still do. "We must win," says Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who went on "Good Morning America" to recommend dispatching more troops. His colleague Republican John McCain agrees. The right-wing Weekly Standard is of like mind. Others were doubtful about the war at the beginning but think the United States must "win" now that the war has been launched.

The New York Times, which opposed an invasion without UN Security Council support, has declared in an editorial that "establishing a free and peaceful Iraq as a linchpin for progress throughout the Middle East is a goal worth struggling for, even at great costs." And, voicing a view often now heard, it adds, "We are there now, and it is essential to stay the course." Joe Klein, of Time magazine, states, "Retreat is not an option."

"Winning," evidently, now consists not in finding the weapons of mass destruction that once were the designated reason for fighting the war, but in creating a democratic government in Iraq -- the one that will serve as a model for the entire Middle East. Condoleezza Rice has called that task the "moral mission of our time." Stanford professor Michael McFaul has even proposed a new Cabinet department whose job would be "the creation of new states." The Pentagon's job will be restricted to "regime destruction;" the job of the new outfit, pursuing a "grand strategy on democratic regime change," will be, Houdini-like, to pull new regimes out of its hat.

On the other hand, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which recently produced a report on the situation in Iraq, thinks a big part of the problem is bad public relations and counsels "an intense communications and marketing campaign to help facilitate a profound change in the Iraqi national frame of mind."

These plans to mass-produce democracies and transform the mentalities of whole peoples have the look of desperate attempts -- as grandiose as they are unhinged from reality -- to overlook the obvious: First, that people, not excluding Iraqis, do not like to be conquered and occupied by foreign powers and are ready and able to resist; second, that disarmament, which is indeed an essential goal for the new century, can only, except in the rarest of circumstances, be achieved not through war but through the common voluntary will of nations. It is not the character of the occupation, it is occupation itself that in a multitude of ways the Iraqis are rejecting.

The practical problem of Iraq's future remains. The Iraqi state has been forcibly removed. That state was a horrible one; yet a nation needs a state. The children must go to school; the trains must run; the museums must open; murderers must be put in jail. But the United States, precisely because it is a single foreign state, which like all states has a highly self-interested agenda of its own, is incapable of providing Iraq with a government that serves its own people. The United States therefore must, to begin with, surrender control of the operation to an international force.

It will not suffice to provide "UN cover" for an American operation, as the administration now seems to propose. The United States should announce a staged withdrawal of its forces in favor of and in conjunction with whatever international forces can be cobbled together. It should also (but surely will not) provide that force with about a hundred billion or so dollars to do its work -- a low estimate of what is needed to rebuild Iraq.

Biden says we must win the war. This is precisely wrong. The United States must learn to lose this war -- a harder task, in many ways, than winning, for it requires admitting mistakes and relinquishing attractive fantasies. This is the true moral mission of our time (well, of the next few years, anyway).

The cost of leaving will certainly be high, but not anywhere near as high as trying to "stay the course," which can only magnify and postpone the disaster. And yet -- regrettable to say -- even if this difficult step is taken, no one should imagine that democracy will be achieved by this means. The great likelihood is something else -- something worse: perhaps a recrudescence of dictatorship or civil war, or both. An interim period -- probably very brief -- of international trusteeship is the best solution, yet it is unlikely to be a good solution. It is merely better than any other recourse.

The good options have probably passed us by. They may never have existed. If the people of Iraq are given back their country, there isn't the slightest guarantee that they will use the privilege to create a liberal democracy. The creation of democracy is an organic process that must proceed from the will of the local people. Sometimes that will is present, more often it is not. Vietnam provides an example. Vietnam today enjoys the self-determination it battled to achieve for so long; but it has not become a democracy.

On the other hand, just because Iraq's future remains to be decided by its talented people, it would also be wrong to categorically rule out the possibility that they will escape tyranny and create democratic government for themselves. The United States and other countries might even find ways of offering modest assistance in the project; it is beyond the power of the United States to create democracy for them.

The matter is not in our hands. It never was.

Jonathan Schell, the Harold Willens Peace Fellow of the Nation Institute, is the author of the recently published "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People" (Metropolitan). Reprinted with permission from the September 22, 2003 issue of The Nation. Read more at

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