Vengeance of The Victors

The saga of Saddam's end--his capture, trial and execution--is a sad metaphor for America's occupation of Iraq. What might have gone right went so wrong. It is worth remembering that Saddam Hussein was not your run-of-the-mill dictator. He created one of the most brutal, corrupt and violent regimes in modern history, something akin to Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China or Kim Jong Il's

North Korea. Whatever the strategic wisdom for the United States, deposing him began as something unquestionably good for Iraq.

But soon the Bush administration dismissed the idea of trying Saddam under international law, or in a court with any broader legitimacy. This is the administration, after all, that could see little advantage to a United Nations mandate for its own invasion and occupation. It put Saddam's fate in the hands of the new Iraqi government, dominated by Shiite and Kurdish politicians who had been victims of his reign. As a result, Saddam's trial, which should have been the judgment of civilized society against a tyrant, is now seen by Iraq's Sunnis and much of the Arab world as a farce, reflecting only the victors' vengeance.

This was not inevitable. Most Iraqis were happy to see Saddam out of power. In the months after the American invasion, support for the Coalition Provisional Authority topped 70 percent. This was so even among Iraq's Sunni Arabs. In the first months of the insurgency, only 14 percent of them approved of attacks on U.S. troops. (That number today is 70 percent.) The rebellious area in those early months was not (Sunni) Fallujah but (Shiite) Najaf.

But during those crucial first months, Washington disbanded the Iraqi Army, fired 50,000 bureaucrats and shut down the government-owned enterprises that employed most Iraqis. In effect, the United States dismantled the Iraqi state, leaving a deep security vacuum, administrative chaos and soaring unemployment. That state was dominated by Iraq's Sunni elites, who read this not as just a regime change but a revolution in which they had become the new underclass. For them, the new Iraq looked like a new dictatorship.

Why Washington made such profound moves with such little forethought remains one of the many puzzles of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Some of the decision making was motivated by ideology: Baathism equaled fascism, so every school teacher who joined the Baath Party to get a job was seen as a closet Nazi; state-owned enterprises were bad, the new Iraq needed a flat tax, etc. Some of it was influenced by Shiite exiles who wanted to take total control of the new Iraq. Some of it simply reflected the bizarre combination of ignorance and naivete that has marked the policies of Bush's "tough guys."

The administration has never fully understood the sectarian nature of its policies, which were less "nation building" than they were "nation busting" in their effects. It kept insisting that it was building a national army and police force when it was blatantly obvious (even to columnists) that the forces were overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurdish, mostly drawn from militias with stronger loyalties to political parties than to the state. The answer to these fundamentally political objections was technocratic: more training. But a stronger Shiite Army made--makes--the Sunni populace more insecure and willing to support the insurgency.

Iraq's Sunnis are not the good guys in this story. They have mostly behaved like self-defeating thugs. The minority of Sunnis who support Al Qaeda have been truly barbarous. The point, however, is not their vices but our stupidity. We summarily deposed not just Saddam Hussein but a centuries-old ruling elite and then were stunned that they reacted poorly. In contrast, on coming into power in South Africa, Nelson Mandela did not fire a single white bureaucrat or soldier--and not because he thought that they had been kind to his people. He correctly saw the strategy as the way to prevent an Afrikaner rebellion.

It has now become fashionable among Washington neoconservatives to blame the Iraqis for everything that has happened to their country. "We have given the Iraqis a republic and they do not appear able to keep it," laments Charles Krauthammer. Others invoke anthropologists to explain the terrible dysfunctions of Iraqi culture. There may be some truth to all these claims--Iraq is a tough place--but the Bush administration is not quite so blameless. It thoughtlessly engineered a political and social revolution as intense as the French or Iranian one and then seemed surprised that Iraq could not digest it happily, peaceably and quickly. We did not give them a republic. We gave them a civil war.