A growing majority of the American public now regards the Iraq invasion as a mistake, according to a variety of polls. This clarity of hindsight, unfortunately, is not matched by a clarity of foresight. Many of those who wish we had never invaded still cannot bring themselves to demand that we leave. We all know the rhetoric against an immediate pull-out: We can't cut and run. We have to stay until the job is finished. Otherwise our 1800-and-counting dead soldiers will have died in vain. We have to stay until we fix all the things we've broken.
Eventually, though, those who understand that the invasion was a mistake will have to face a second hard truth: We're not fixing anything by staying. Whether we leave in a week or a year or in twenty years, Iraq will be a broken country. The only difference is this: Will 1,800 soldiers have died in vain, or thousands more?
Turning Points that Weren't
American public opinion about the Iraq War has evolved through several stages since the administration first started beating its drums in the summer of 2002. At first the country was divided and skeptical, but once the tanks started rolling in March, 2003 the war became very popular. Jessica Lynch, Saddam's statue, the president in a flight suit -- it was great television, and what kind of American opposes great television?
From mid-2003 through President Bush's re-election, support for the war crested in several decreasing waves. Every few months the administration started building up our expectations: Some imminent event was the turning point, and soon the war would proceed to a swift and successful conclusion. Then the event passed, the war continued, and support waned until the next alleged turning point. In late 2003 Howard Dean surfed one of those declining waves, almost making it to the primaries before being swamped by the new wave surrounding Saddam's capture. The transfer of sovereignty in June, 2004 was supposed to be a turning point. So was the re-capture of Fallujah in December, 2004, and then the purple-finger elections in January, 2005.
You can fool the American people once -- heck, you can usually fool us three or four times -- but eventually we catch on. Each false turning brought a slightly smaller peak in public support than the previous one. And now the drafting of a constitution for the new Iraqi government -- originally scheduled for August 15 but currently on hold -- has raised no expectation at all; the polls on the war continue to plunge. Bush's turning-the-corner fantasy is getting as old as Johnson's light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel fantasy or Hoover's prosperity-is-just-around-the-corner fantasy.
Slowly, a consensus is developing that the invasion was a mistake. Sure, Saddam was bad and no one sheds any tears that he's in jail rather than in one of his many palaces. But how much blood and treasure is regime change ultimately going to cost, and how much better will the new regime be? If President Bush had given us the kind of reasonable estimate we'd expect from any trustworthy auto mechanic, chances are we'd have said no.
Unfortunately, the new consensus doesn't tell us what to do now. The next logical position after Gung-Ho is what Colin Powell supposedly called the Pottery Barn Doctrine: We broke it; we bought it. The invasion was a mistake, but we have to make it right. Our troops have to stay until Iraq is fixed.
But the Pottery Barn Doctrine is based on almost as many false assumptions as the initial invasion. The biggest one is this: By staying in Iraq, we're fixing something. We aren't. The sooner we realize that, the better.
What Are We Fixing?
Are things getting better or worse in Iraq? The Iraq Index project at the Brookings Institute pulls together a lot of the relevant statistics without much commentary. Its most recent report is from June, 2005.
Consider electricity (page 25), a major measure of well-being in a country where summer temperatures regularly hit 120. Monthly electrical production in Iraq peaked in August, 2004. Production in October, 2004 was still higher than October, 2003, but every month after that has lagged the production of the same month in the previous year. Or consider oil (page 23): Only one month since the invasion (September, 2004) has reached the prewar peak production of 2.5 million barrels per day. The trend is flat. Brookings' estimate of the unemployment rate (page 26) has improved from a 40-50% range in October, 2003 to a 27-40% estimate now -- but a footnote explains that the data is getting worse, not better. (Brookings assumes that the actual increase in unemployment reports is simply due to an increase in accuracy rather than a real increase in unemployment.) Inflation (page 26) has gone from 0.6% to 11.4%.
We're not rebuilding the country because we're not controlling the insurgency. The estimated number of insurgents detained or killed (page 15) keeps rising, as does the number of Iraqis in prison (page 15). But the estimated strength of the insurgency (page 16 -- around 20,000) remains the same, as does the estimated number of foreign fighters (page 16 -- around 1000). The average number of attacks by insurgents per day (page 19) reached its current level (between 50 and 80) at the beginning of 2004. Civilian deaths in acts of war (page 9) have been trending upward since the beginning of the war. Iraqi military and police deaths (page 8) have likewise been trending upward. Monthly US military deaths in Iraq (page 4) fluctuate from month to month, but they exceeded 70 only twice before March, 2004. Since the it has happened seven times. (Actually eight, because the report's total for June, 2005 was incomplete. This month will likely be the ninth -- 55 American soldiers died in the first half of August alone.)
What are we fixing? What do we expect to get better if we stay for another year or five years or ten years? I do not intend that question to be rhetorical. If "we are making progress, "as President Bush claimed this week, we ought to be able to measure that progress somehow.
Cargo Cult Democracy
The biggest thing we are supposedly progressing towards is an Iraqi democracy. These are the milestones that are supposed to make us optimistic as we go forward: Writing a constitution (now rescheduled for August 22), approving that constitution by referendum (October 15), and having new elections under that constitution (December). From the beginning, this plan has represented a complete misunderstanding of what democracy is: a constitution and elections.
Think about it. If all you need is a constitution and elections, why can't we have a world democracy? Use the same plan: Elect delegates to a world constitutional convention, give them a few months to write a constitution, and then have elections a few months later. We could have the Republic of Earth set up by 2007 at the latest.
Considered in those terms -- as applying to ourselves and not just the Iraqis -- the plan's impracticality is obvious. Exactly what it gets wrong is less obvious, because it depends on factors we take for granted in America. Let me try to spell them out.
A constitution and elections are just the outer forms of democracy, not its essence. They are like the wooden control towers of the apocryphal south sea cargo cults, who thought such structures would bring back the beneficent cargo planes of World War II. Real democracy depends on two invisible factors: First, a strong sense of national identity, so that citizens will be loyal to each other and to the nation as a whole. And second, a national consensus about all the really important issues: the limits of government, the rights of the individual, the nature of property, and so on. Once that consensus is established you can choose leaders by elections (in ancient Athens they chose some officials by lot) because leadership isn't important. The big issues are decided already; presidents and parliaments just quibble about details.
American democracy survived the contested election of 2000, for example, because Gore and Nader voters had faith that they would survive a Bush presidency. Whoever is president, we believe we will not be killed or herded into concentration camps or have all our property confiscated. We believe another election will be held, and that a president who loses will turn over power peacefully. We believe those things not because they are codified in our Constitution, but because they are part of our national consensus. We believe -- not in a piece of paper -- but in each other.
As the tragic history of post-colonial Africa has made clear, a fine-sounding constitution counts for nothing if no national consensus backs it up. In such countries leadership is important, because the leader can do anything -- kill his enemies, steal their land, even wipe out entire ethnic groups. When leadership is that important, you can't trust it to something as uncertain as an election. Ask yourself: If a candidate wants to kill your whole family, will you accept his leadership peacefully? Does it matter how many votes he got?
Iraq, like the world as a whole, has no national identity and no consensus. Consequently, it can have no democracy.
President Bush likes to misrepresent this criticism as a negative comment on Islam or Arabian culture. In the 2004 State of the Union address, he said:
We also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare. Yet it is mistaken, and condescending, to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government.
Neither I nor anyone I can think of has ever put forward this point of view. Any of Iraq's three major ethnic/religious groups -- Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia -- might be able to sustain a democracy on its own. (If they divided neatly into three geographic regions a partition might work. But they don't.) The three don't trust each other, don't feel a national loyalty to each other, and don't make the same assumptions about the nature and limits of government. None of the three will allow the others to rule peacefully.
The goal of Iraqi democracy is a mirage, and always has been.
We Must Leave Iraq
It is hard to let go of the fantasy that some good can salvaged from the thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars that have already been sacrificed to this war. Americans like to believe in happy endings. We want to be told that one more push will make it all worthwhile.
But we need to face reality. The dead soldiers and spent dollars are gone and they have accomplished nothing. We are like the gambler who stays at the table because he cannot admit that he has already lost more than he can afford. One more game, we think, and we can win it all back. Or at least some of it.
We can't. It is a hard truth, but it is a truth. Not even America is so rich and so powerful that we can indulge such expensive fantasies indefinitely. We can leave Iraq now, or we can leave after our losses have grown. That is the only choice we have.