Separating Fact From Fantasy

Watching what's happening in Iraq right now, with Shias and Sunnis polarized, hostile and increasingly violent, it is easy to conclude that this is all a product of ancient hatreds and that Iraq will inevitably descend into a bloody civil war. In fact, for a society with many different communities in it, Iraq has had a strikingly peaceful, even harmonious history--unlike

India or Nigeria or the Balkans. Current events are the product of recent forces, some set in motion by Saddam Hussein, others by the American occupation. Perhaps they can be reversed even at this stage, but it will take a more full-scale and aggressive reversal of American policy.

The administration's first, massive misstep was to occupy a country of 25 million people with only 140,000 troops. When security is scarce, people retreat to their ethnic, religious or tribal groups. They begin to mistrust anyone outside the clan. If the government remains weak, they start providing for their own security, creating or expanding militias. This pattern has repeated itself in dozens of examples, including the Balkans and now, of course, Iraq.

The second mistake has been a broader one. Washington tended to see Iraq through a prism of fantasy rather than reality. It imagined Iraq as a secular, educated society rather than one composed of three distinct communities. To see the facts on the ground, look at any poll that breaks up the results for Iraq's three regions. When asked, for example, whether Saddam's removal was a good thing, Kurds responded positively by 91 percent, Shias by 98 percent and Sunnis by 13 percent.

When the insurgency began, most administration officials saw it as representing a small band of dead-enders, supported by vast numbers of foreigners, rather than what it was, a movement largely based in Iraq's Sunni population (though of course representing a minority within it). When the U.S. disbanded the Army and "de-Baathified" the government, Washington believed that it was dismantling the apparatus of totalitarianism. But the Sunnis saw it as a mass purge directed against them.

We see our actions in Iraq as neutral and almost technocratic in nature, rather than what they are--intensely political. The most significant example of this has been our "Iraqification" policy. Having decided to create a new Iraqi Army and police--and fast--the U.S. military took what volunteers it could. In a few months, Washington forced the rapid acceleration of the training schedule, which meant putting badly trained forces in the field and, more significantly, recruiting members of the existing Shia and Kurdish militias.

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the military-affairs scholar Stephen Biddle has written a powerful and persuasive critique of administration policy that centers on Iraqification. "Iraq's Sunnis," he writes, "perceive the 'national' army and police force as a Shiite-Kurdish militia on steroids... The more threatened the Sunnis feel, the more likely they are to fight back even harder. The bigger, stronger, better trained, and better equipped the Iraqi forces become, the worse the communal tensions that underlie the whole conflict will get." Biddle's argument is that the central plank of current administration policy--"standing up" an Iraqi Army--is not just unhelpful but actively producing the negative spiral we are watching.

Biddle points out correctly that American policy hopes to build support in all communities, including the Sunnis, by rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure and spurring economic development. But if you fear a future in which you will be rounded up, tortured or slaughtered, a new school and a few more hours of electricity are not going to win you over. Security will always trump everything else. Biddle argues that a national power-sharing arrangement--a national compact--should be given precedence over creating the Iraqi military.

The U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, is aware of this intensely political reality in Iraq and has been trying to forge just such a national compact, often by undoing many of the bad decisions that were made before he got there. But other aspects of administration policy proceed apace, often undermining his efforts. Biddle argues that the United States will have to get much more aggressive in negotiating with the three major communities, making clear to them that it will stop supporting them if they do not compromise to forge a new deal. That probably translates to mean that the president will need to get personally involved in these talks, and the military will have to reorient its strategy to support them.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush took a swipe at critics. "Hindsight alone is not wisdom," he said. In fact, the tragedy of Iraq is that most of these critiques were made--by several people--at the time the policies were announced, often before. It's the president who needs to look back and learn from his mistakes. Hindsight may not be the only wisdom, but it is a lot better than operating in the dark.