Iraq’s Failures – Deciphering Signals for Future Struggles
By Ruby Amatulla and Matthew Cappiello
December 31, 2011

On a long-awaited day in December 2011, America’s occupation of Iraq came to an end after almost nine years, over one trillion dollars spent, over 4000 American deaths, and over 100,000 Iraqi lives lost.

In spite of differences between past and present events, relevant lessons from Iraq’s failures can be applied to current reforms sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

America still plays a crucial role in shaping modern international politics. Ultimately, the critical issues facing our globalized society today do not fit the pattern of ‘one good country versus another evil country’ struggles. Instead, ordinary people on all sides are victimized by collusions of vested financial and political interests on all sides.

There are two Americas. The vast majority of Americans are willing to invest and work for a better world. Conversely, there are fewer but more powerful Americans who are arrogant, greedy, ethnocentric, and hungry for power. To defeat the latter, Muslim-majority societies need to work with the former.

In retrospect of past failures of engagements between America and these societies, one common plotline repeatedly emerges. At the outset, people on both sides became hopeful about America’s involvement. Iraqis and Americans both became euphoric after the fall of Saddam Hussein, as reflected in polls. Two million Afghan refugees returned home after America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, showing their trust in America’s ability to provide security and improved economic conditions.

But as time progressed, both geopolitical events led to a vicious downward cycle and loss of control. Due to decreased legitimacy, America was rendered ineffective at the outset and thus started to make bad decisions. Extremists and counterproductive elements on both sides – war profiteers, religious and sectarian demagogues, double agents, toothless media commentators – aggravated the situation by increasing violence, disruption, and popular cynicism about outcomes.

In every case, perhaps this downward cycle of events could have been avoided or managed more effectively had more nonpartisan international watchdogs and mediators been involved. The legitimate and forceful voices of such groups could compel governmental engagements to be more accountable and effective. Among them could involve the political and cultural leadership from the region and from the international community, including those of our own community of American Muslims.

In our view, Western Muslims could become very powerful catalysts for peace in our time, as they are common denominators between the West and Muslim-majority societies. It is critical for these societies undergoing current social uprisings to seek these bridge-builders such as Americans Muslims who could to reach out to civil societies and to public opinion, thus improving the nature of Western engagements with these societies. On the other hand, Western powers should reach out to these same Western Muslims to help to build popular trust and confidence within these societies, and to invalidate and reject the extremism and sectarianism that have caused so many problems in the past.

Often in the past and present, Western leaders have appeared to quietly allow extremist and sectarian breakdowns to occur in these societies. An unpublished 513-page federal report of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners, who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding Iraq despite strong collective national will towards change. The book “State of Denial” written by Bob Woodward – a former Watergate reporter and one of America’s most renowned investigative journalists – details an incredible lack of planning for postwar Iraq. Were these actions merely accidental, or was this a signal of a more sinister agenda? Were Americans in high places deliberately working collaboratively with outside parties to squash the possibilities of a prosperous and independent Muslim-majority society in the region?

Sadly, the present US administration and Pentagon are bearing eerily similar signals towards the Arab Spring. They have serious interests in natural resource extraction and national security, but in practice they only make feeble attempts to ensure the reconstruction of successful, progressive, and independent societies.

Past successes or failures of American involvements depend largely on the mindset and modus operandi of people on both sides. If people are polarized and devoid of trust and goodwill, the American government’s actions will become weak and vulnerable to blunders. As seen in cases such as the Kosovo conflict, America could be relatively decisive and effective if mutual popular will exists in favor of change.

But if mutual suspicion or callous disregard for welfare exists, problems will only multiply themselves. In Iraq, inexplicable chains of blunders took place one after another, even during the very first months after the invasion. Why weren’t sufficient military forces deployed in Iraq, as many experts urged? Why weren’t critical borders sealed or secured immediately after the invasion? Why was internal stability and security left in disarray, with looting rampant and 15,000 national treasures robbed in broad daylight within three days? Wouldn’t all of these miscalculations only serve to empower extremists and enemies to pursue their agenda of destruction?

Why were enormous cost overruns incurred by American contractors and military leaders, as was exposed by the Special Inspector General in Iraq? Why were extremely expensive mega-projects undertaken only incompletely, rendering enormous profits for US contractors with minimal benefit to the Iraqi community? Why was small-scale business infrastructure neglected? Why were huge gas generators built for a society that did not have gas? Any reasonable reconstruction program could have addressed these effectively, saving American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and Iraq a horrendous situation.

At times, absurd decisions made in Iraq defied common sense. Why was wholesale de-Baathification decided upon concurrent with disbanding of the whole Iraqi army, especially knowing that a crucial segment of the society with professional expertise would therefore be pushed overnight towards the enemy camp? Even if head Baathist supporters were removed from their positions, the rest could have been rehabilitated and retained in order to provide invaluable reconstruction services. Why were these decisions taken in direct defiance against vehement objections of American generals and other experts present in Iraq at that time?

We need transnational dialogue in order to advocate more forcefully for legal reforms that can serve as checks and balances against regional interests. In Iraq, why was the drafting of the constitution – the foundation of self-rule and success of a society – left alone to a newly elected and inexperienced group of representatives who were overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurd? Ridden with internal political struggles and sectarian conflicts, the representatives produced a document that was according to many experts a recipe for disintegration.

This mess stands in stark contrast to our previous example in Kosovo, where an international team assigned by the UN helped representatives to draft the constitution, sometimes overruling representatives’ requests in order to maintain essential ideals. In order to integrate and stabilize Iraq, a system was needed in which all three unequal ethnic groups– Shia, Sunni, and Kurd – were made indispensable in Iraqi governance via an impartial rule of law, a bicameral legislature, and a delicate balance of power between regional and central governments. One can only wonder whether a committed and diverse leadership of activists can come together to prevent disintegration along religious, ideological, or ethnocultural lines during future constitutional talks within Egypt and other nations.

Had concerned and committed international watchdogs stepped up to the plate to ensure a stable transition in Iraq – especially among political and social notables in the Muslim world – much tragedy and injustice may have been prevented. Since these individuals maintained sociocultural credibility in the region as well as a symbolic stake in the outcome, they could have received overwhelming support from the international community if they had chosen to be wise and constructive. Instead, they chose to squander a huge opportunity to serve the Muslim-majority society, the region and the Muslim world.

Alternative possibilities for dialogue did exist, including those that refused to fit into the confrontational and now-defunct ‘West vs. East’ narrative between nations. Iran offered America a comprehensive regional cooperation and peace proposal in 2003 after the Iraq invasion, despite its long and difficult past, its record of failures and human rights abuses, and its oft-tense relationship with the United States. That proposal, unfortunately, was kept hidden from the American public and trashed by Bush administration officials, possibly influenced by pro-Israeli groups who did not want a good relationship between America and Iran.

American civil society leadership, including American Muslim leadership, should have vehemently objected against such a counterproductive move to serve special interests at the cost of the people’s needs on both sides. It is incalculable to comprehend how helpful and cost-effective Iraqi reconstruction could have been had America received full cooperation from Iran, a regional leader. Instead, the country was pushed into the position of a rejected and humiliated adversary, later responsible for creating many costly troubles.

As advocates for reforms in the Middle East and North Africa, we can fingerpoint towards others as much as we want for their share of blunders. However, as time uplifts the blinders before our eyes, that finger might eventually be turned to ourselves as well. If international coalitions of civil societies across borders – especially those within Muslim communities – had remained more strategically wise about collaborating with US interests to achieve change, Iraq could have been paved with gold. But they didn’t pull it together, due to long-held but only partially justified suspicions about US intentions that resulted in perpetuation of long-held hostile narratives on both sides, not to mention a lack of internal unity and organization within their own communities.

Now, the window of opportunity has passed for change, and Iraq is certainly not paved with gold. It is not even paved with tar. We must make sure that such disunity does not result in another window of opportunity passing us by yet again. The current uprisings occurring within the Middle East and North Africa will only occur once in a lifetime.