Our Iraqi Revolution

News Abroad

Mr. Astore is an associate professor of history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He also served for twenty years in the U.S. Air Force.

When is the American public going to realize that our continued presence in Iraq is not really about winning a war but rather taming a revolution that we ourselves unleashed?  When you invade a country, seize its capital, depose its leader, disband its army, and throw its bureaucratic elite out of work, you have in essence imposed a revolution on that country.  That’s precisely what we did in 2003 as we tried naively and ineptly to remake Iraq as a democracy, or at least a simulacrum of democracy.  This new Iraq, allied of course with the U.S., was supposed to give a voice to the common people, serving as a beacon of freedom to other states in the Middle East.  Or so it was pitched by those who subscribed to neo-con visions of the unqualified benevolence and irresistible potency of American military power.

We won the military part easily enough.  We overthrew Saddam and got rid of his WMD, if only from our somewhat feverish and overworked imaginations.  But as we attempted to remake Iraq in our image, we unleashed a revolution – a fact we still haven’t fully owned up to.  And the result has been disaster.

Compounding the disaster was our insistence on viewing Iraq as a “war,” as yet another front in the global fight against terror.  Such a template was as misleading as it was limiting.  The framework of war answered questions even before they were asked, as well as sidelining other questions and concerns.  When you viewed Iraq as a war within a war, a knee-jerk response was to insist we must “win” it, for there’s no substitute for victory in an existential war on terror.  In a similar vein, many Americans further believed that if the Iraq “war” was truly the central battlefront in the war on terror, we had to be prepared and willing to restrict criticism of our government so as to avoid giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

The Need for a Different Template

But what if Iraq is not a war?  What if we use a different template?  Let’s eschew the war rhetoric and instead consider Iraq as a country in the throes of a profound revolution that we helped to manufacture.  And if for the moment you accept that template, you may arrive at different answers about the proper role of our military in Iraq, both now and in the future.

Of course, you’d never even consider this template if you listened only to the simplistic, solipsistic, and soporific presidential “debates.”  For John McCain, Iraq was all about staying the course to American victory (the criteria of which he wasn’t asked to define) while achieving “peace with honor.”  His goal was to redeem the sacrifices of American troops (Iraqi sacrifices were ignored).

For Barack Obama, Iraq was all about pulling out (most) U.S. troops, following a seemingly prudent timeline of sixteen months (which some are already saying is not prudent enough).  Stressing that American taxpayers were generously contributing $10 billion a month to rebuild Iraq, while a seemingly ungrateful Iraqi government piled up scores of billions in oil-related profits, Obama called for shifting the war’s burden to the Iraqis as U.S. forces withdrew.

The Anatomy of Iraq’s Revolution

But we must not view Iraq as being synonymous with a “war” we must either “win” or at least end.  Iraq is in the middle of a political and social revolution that we started.  Post-Saddam Iraq has already endured its “regime change” phase (2003-04) and its “reign of terror” phase (2004-07), where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died and millions more became refugees.  It is now apparently in its “Thermidorean” phase (2007-08), a relaxation in violence partly attributable to the U.S. military-led “surge” but in fact due more to Iraqi exhaustion after four years of bloodletting.

What will 2009-10 bring to revolutionary Iraq?  A new strong man, a further reduction in violence, another reign of terror?  It’s likely to bring a lot more trouble if we continue to think of Iraq merely as a “war” in which we must prevail instead of a revolution whose resolution lies largely outside of our control.

The big question in the immediate future is whether rival Iraqi factions are truly set on achieving a modus vivendi for sharing power, or whether they are simply biding time, waiting for the U.S. military to leave before embarking again on another revolutionary reign of terror.

We are no longer, if we ever were, disinterested power brokers.  We may, however, be able to mitigate an inadvertent relapse into revolutionary bloodletting.  One worrisome scenario envisioned by an Army officer intimately involved in Iraqi politics posited client-based groups and parties, and even large tribes becoming embroiled in a localized conflict in the future that flares into general engagement, with Iran playing the role of provocateur and spoiler.  Under such a scenario, our role would be to serve as a stabilizing counterweight, supporting a legitimate Iraqi government in its efforts to avoid a resurgence of revolutionary bloodletting abetted by Iran.

Solving Iraq’s Rubik’s Cube

Colin Powell’s so-called “Pottery Barn” doctrine – “You break it, you bought it” – at least had the virtue of recognizing that we did indeed break Iraq.  Like it or not, the U.S. has a moral obligation to help stabilize and restore the country.  Here the surge of 2007 has helped, yet even General Petraeus admits that today’s relative calm is both “fragile” and “reversible.”  A U.S. Army battalion commander told me two weeks ago that Iraq remains “a Rubik’s cube of cross cutting rivalries and vengeances.”

How do we solve this revolutionary Rubik’s cube?  This officer remained guardedly optimistic.  “Although the cynical will scoff,” he admitted, “there are[,] no-kidding[,] Iraqi patriots who want to reinvest in the country.  The Iraqi security forces are getting better. We went through a period of shedding opportunists and incompetents and a simultaneous time of leaders lining their own pockets with seed corn/priming water before they became conditioned to confidence in the future and could lower corruption and graft.”  How do we empower these patriots – the future rebuilders and peacemakers of Iraq?

Our military has learned the hard way that Iraq resists simple solutions.  And that’s because Iraq is experiencing a revolution every bit as unsettling as our own revolutions, whether we choose the year 1777 or 1863.

Humility needs to replace hubris: We must recognize that “victory” in the Iraqi revolution is ultimately in their hands, not ours.  And we must admit the limits of U.S. military power to facilitate a solution.   It’s been said you can do anything with a bayonet but sit on it – and the Iraqis no longer wish to sit on our bayonets as they work through their problems.

If, despite our collective efforts to head it off, revolutionary unrest surges again in Iraq, are we honest enough to admit our culpability as well as the limits of our own power to remake the world?  Or will we once again play the blame game and demand, “Who lost Iraq,” even though it was we who started the revolution?

Just before I retired from the Air Force in 2005, I shared a few words of goodbye with an Iraqi-American officer in my unit.  After consenting to exchanging kisses with him (a sign of affection and honor in Iraqi culture, and the first time I’ve kissed a scraggly cheek since I was a kid), he left me with an optimistic message.  I don’t recall his exact words, but the gist of it was that although things in Iraq looked dire, ordinary, decent Iraqis would soon come to the fore and renew the country of his birth.

His guarded optimism reminded me that there is hope for Iraq, and it resides in the Iraqi people themselves.  And as we withdraw our combat forces, let us do whatever we can to empower peace-loving Iraqis to win back their country from revolutionaries intoxicated by bloodlust – especially those we ourselves helped to create and empower.

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/4/2008

The revolution is not only for Iraqis "to settle", but should have been "to make" on the first place. And that's the main ideological and political point many
disagree with Prof. Astore.

omar ibrahim baker - 12/2/2008

" But I don't think the war was only about oil and/or Israel."

So what was it about?
Do you seriously contend that it was about propagating "Democracy" and "respect of human rights" Professor?

William Astore - 11/30/2008

To Mr. Matthewson: I'd like to assure you I'm not a "surrogate" for anyone. I also believe there are some Iraqis who are not in a hurry to see American forces leave. They fear the potential violence and chaos that may result. However, it's obvious that most Iraqis do want to set a timetable for American withdrawal, which is only natural, I think.

To Mr. Baker: Yes, oil is obviously a factor, and Israel is always a strategic concern whenever you discuss the Middle East. But I don't think the war was only about oil and/or Israel. Your point about imperialism of the "soft" variety is more provocative and telling, I think. I once took an entire course on "American imperialism," the gist of which was that Americans don't like to see themselves--or can't see themselves--as imperialistic. Partly this is because our imperialism is not of the Roman variety. Put simply, America is not trying to destroy Iraq--we are not creating a desert and calling it "peace," as in that famous passage from Tacitus.

In fact, many Americans are working hard--if sometimes with suspect motives--to rebuild Iraq. But Americans tend to rebuild in our image, to include an imposition, whether intentional or unintentional, of American culture, partly because we do not fully understand Iraqi culture--a point I wrote about in a previous HNN article.

And warm thanks to Maarja Krusten for your comments. I do think the U.S. military had to relearn many lessons that had been forgotten or neglected since Vietnam. But I still wonder if the U.S. military is a bit like the Hessians who found themselves in the midst of the U.S. Revolutionary war in the 1770s. No matter how effective we are militarily, the revolution is for the Iraqis to settle, not us.

Thank you.

Maarja Krusten - 11/28/2008

Forgot to add that I'm not at work today, in case anyone is watching.

Maarja Krusten - 11/28/2008

A very interesting essay.

In discussing "On Point II," a departmental history of the Army’s actions in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, David Ignatius noted in a WaPo column last year that “Politicians repeat, ad nauseam, the maxim that ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ The U.S. Army is that rare institution in American life that is actually putting this precept into practice.”

Ignatius wrote on July 13, 2008 that “The U.S. Army has done something remarkable in its new history of the disastrous first 18 months of the American occupation of Iraq: It has conducted a rigorous self-critique of how bad decisions were made, so that the Army won't make them again.

Civilian leaders are still mostly engaged in a blame game about Iraq, pointing fingers to explain what went wrong and to justify their own actions. . . . The Army can't afford this sort of retroactive self-justification. Its commanders and soldiers are the ones who got stuck with the situation in Iraq and had to make it work as best they could. And this internal history, published last month under the title 'On Point II,' testifies to the Army's strength as a learning organization.”

Ignatius concluded that

“. . . the Army learned from its mistakes. Rather than sulking about the Iraq mess, commanders made necessary changes. The Army developed a new doctrine for fighting a counterinsurgency; it learned how to work with Iraqi tribal leaders; it pursued al-Qaeda into every village of Iraq; it experimented with soft power, by working closely with Provincial Reconstruction Teams. 'One could easily state that the U.S. Army essentially reinvented itself during this 18-month period,' the historians write.

This study illustrates what's most admirable about the Army. It has maintained a tradition of intellectual rigor and self-criticism. That's nurtured in the Army's unique program of midcareer education.”

Such examinations are much harder to do in the political world, where people often seem boxed in by the demands of orthodoxy. In watching one of the Washington talk shows (I think it was Inside Washington) earlier this year, I was struck by the observation by one of the pundits who said that most American voters had concluded that the decision to go into Iraq was wrong and that as far as what happened now, they already had moved on. This was during primary season, before the Democratic and Republican nominees had locked up their nominations and before the financial and fiscal crises.

The polls I saw during the last year suggested that most respondents felt the decision to go in to Iraq was wrong but felt some ambivalence about what the U.S. should do going forward. Perhaps one day objective historians will apply the same rigor the Army’s historians did to the military side to look at public opinion. Some day scholars will examine what lay behind the polling numbers on Iraq and how the public came to react as it did. This will require looking not just at outcomes, but also at the administration’s communications strategy and use of surrogates.

There’s a great deal for historians to look at here, including the blogosphere. Having immersed myself so deeply in the Nixon White House during my 14 years of employment with the National Archives, I found myself reading some of the comments posted on HNN between 2003 and 2008 and thinking, what if I were in the communications office at the White House right now? Would I find the approach the President’s supporters are taking on HNN to be useful or harmful? What is best in the long run in terms of outreach and achieving sustainability?

In addition to looking at the administration’s communications strategy, and how the President chose to lead the nation after 9/11, some future historians undoubtedly will consider also how members of the public (the self selecting sample that represents their parties as they argue issues on-line) engaged each other in the virtual world during the last few years. Much here for future study, certainly.

omar ibrahim baker - 11/26/2008

Professor Astore's misguided optimism is not solely due to his flawed understanding of the motives behind the US conquest and destruction of Iraq but also of his equally flawed perception of the ever present motives and goals behind America's neocon- imperialist policies and practices of the Bush /Cheney/Wolfowitz administration in general .

Imperialism, in essence, goes far beyond the legitimate defense of a nation's external interests into the realm of prospective total ,overall domination of other nations' whole national/cultural identity, outlook , aspirations and, of course, of their material resources through total indefinite mental/psychological subjugation through “cultural” domination AND domination of those nations' material resources!

In form it ranges from the soft approach of hard economic
“persuasion” via economic and financial infiltration leading to political subservience up to the hard approach of total economic strangulation , as with UNSC Sanctions, and outright military conquest leading to total economic and political domination.

The USA tried the former, soft, approach (methodology?), with some success, with Western Europe and is presently pursuing it, with greater success, with the newly liberated nations of Eastern Europe .

Iraq was meant to be a demonstration of the other , hard, approach directed mainly, but not exclusively , to South America where the soft approach has not only failed but has borne the seeds of developments that could make the use of the hard approach inevitable!

Which is another way to look at and consider the US “war” on Iraq: a real live demonstration?

omar ibrahim baker - 11/26/2008

WHEN will Professor William Astore realize that " When you invade a country, seize its capital, depose its leader, disband its army, and throw its bureaucratic elite out of work," IS NOT that " you have in essence imposed a revolution on that country." but that you have substantially destroyed that country?

For American "historians" to continue wallowing in deceiptful or infantile ignorance or ignoring what is abundantly obvious is neither good for the reputation of American scholarship nor serves American interests.

The USA embarked on the destruction of Iraq to achieve two "strategic" objectives:
1- To further empower Israel by eliminating a potential regional military rival
2-To control directly Iraqi oill resources.
Both objectives dictated the total destruction of Iraq not merely revolutionizing it!

Tim Matthewson - 11/26/2008

I don't agree: the goal of all Iraqis, not matter what religion, ethnicity, or politics, is to drive out the foreigners, that is, to drive out the Americans. The most important Iraqi decisions have been to force the US to sign a treaty that states in clear and unequivocal terms when the US will leave, and leave without attempting to force a colonial status on Iraq. US leaders and their surrogates, such as Mr. Astore, have never been willing to accept this view, why, because their goals have always been to turn Iraq into a colony of the US located in the center of the middle east. The war in Iraq was and remains a war organized by American oil companies and their surrogates, Bush and Cheney, to dominate the supply of oil from the middle east.