Chaos Accomplished

In a speech on March 13 at George Washington University, Bush touted the "remarkable progress" made by the United States:

In less than three years, the Iraqi people have gone from living under the boot of a brutal tyrant, to liberation, to sovereignty, to free elections, to a constitutional referendum, and last December, to elections for a fully constitutional government.
Yet, a snapshot of Iraq today reveals a country that is miles from anything recognizable as on a "road to progress."

At the end of last year, Iraqis had 11 percent less electricity and 36 percent less potable water than before the 2003 invasion. The number of Iraqis with sewer access has fallen by 90 percent, and oil output is down by more than 20 percent. A poll in mid-2004 found that seven out of 10 Iraqis see the United States as "occupiers," not "liberators." A more recent survey (PDF) showed that almost half of all Iraqis support armed attacks on U.S. troops. And this weekend, former Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told the BBC that Iraq was smack in the middle of a civil war.

That is the essential truth of what we have wrought in Iraq.

Last week 200 more bodies were found in and around Baghdad, dumped in bunches. Many of the corpses had their hands tied behind their backs and had been killed by a single bullet to the head. The New York Times reported "widespread suspicion" that "most were victims of Shiite death squads who went on a quiet but steady killing spree after a bomb attack on a Shiite market in Baghdad one week ago."

The political process that the war's supporters tout is at an impasse. December's elections were essentially an ethnic or sectarian census of Iraq's population; Iraqis voted for lists of anonymous candidates from their own "tribe." Names of candidates were withheld for their own protection.

Four months after those elections, the ministers have failed to form a government. Despite the efforts of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad -- who appears to be an unusually competent appointee for this administration -- the factions remain deadlocked.

Last week, members of Iraq's Parliament finally sat down to negotiate after months of wrangling over the issue of federalism. The issue has been a deal-breaker so far; Shiites and Kurds want powerful regional governments, while the Sunnis who make up the heart of the insurgency fear that such an arrangement would cut them off from the lucre of Iraq's vast oil deposits. The meeting lasted just half an hour, adjourning after the ministers argued bitterly over the wording of the government's new loyalty oath.

According to a report by the International Crisis Group (PDF), power is concentrated in the hands of parties that have militias. "With no central apparatus that can rely on its own nonpartisan security forces to stand in the way of parties and militias holding ethnic, sectarian and even separatist agendas, the most likely outcome is the gradual erosion or perhaps disintegration of the state," the report said.

In the face of these ugly developments, there's been a significant shift in rhetoric from the administration and its dwindling ranks of supporters. The hawks are trying to distance themselves from the consequences of the war they championed. The continuing violence and disarray we can expect in the coming years will be the Iraqis' fault, not a result of American hubris.

We no longer hear the "Pottery Barn" maxim famously uttered by former Secretary of State Colin Powell: "You break it, you buy it." After the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which set off a wave of back and forth sectarian violence, President Bush suggested that while continuing U.S. military support is crucial, Iraqis must take the lead in forming a unified state.

While we reject the Pottery Barn theory as a justification for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, dodging our responsibility for the tragedy being lived by Iraq's civilians every day is cowardly and wrong. Sectarian tensions certainly simmered under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, but the low-level, irregular civil war plaguing Iraq today is a conflict largely of our making. If one were to sit down and consciously map out how best to ignite such a conflict, one would be hard-pressed to do a better job than the Bush administration has done.

It wasn't just the neoconservatives' dismissal of the State Department's exhaustive post-war planning, nor the rejection of top army officials' estimates of the number of troops needed to establish stability after the invasion. The so-called political process itself was always based on American domestic politics rather than sound nation-building.

After the administration's original justifications for the war were proven false, the emphasis shifted to the rhetoric of "democratization." From that point, the building of an Iraqi state was shaped by Karl Rove's political apparatus and not the experience learned in other post-conflict situations. A power-sharing government -- in which different groups are guaranteed certain offices and ministries -- was rejected, despite the fact that such arrangements have been used following intrastate conflicts from Cambodia to Mozambique. Worse yet, the administration insisted on an overarching program of "de-Ba'athification," which left many mid-level Sunni officials unemployed and humiliated -- and still armed to the teeth.

What is harder to quantify is the degree to which incompetence, graft and cronyism has contributed to support for Iraqi insurgents. While the administration's backers speak of the great progress being made in reconstructing a war-torn country, the Pentagon's own inspector-general warns (PDF) that, with nearly all of the $30 billion allocated already spent, there remains a dramatic "reconstruction gap."

That's the reality 35 months after the president stood before a banner reading "Mission Accomplished" and thanked "all of the citizens of Iraq who welcomed our troops and joined in the liberation of their own country."

For three long and disastrous years, the administration has continued to put that sunny spin on the havoc it has wrought. As long as that obstinate state of denial persists, we have little reason to hope for anything better before we face the war's fourth anniversary.

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