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How Not to Repair a Broken Pot

The lesson of Iraq isn't that American intervention only makes things worse; it's that there's a smarter way to do it.

The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is still almost two weeks away, but I want to draw some lessons from the experience before we're all overtaken by the hoopla and huzzah, the commemorative stamps of Gen. Tommy Franks and the Little Miss Shock 'N' Awe beauty pageants. My colleague and boss, David Rothkopf, has already teased out some meta-morals from both Iraq and Afghanistan, but I would like to suggest some more-specific lessons arising from one particularly calamitous miscalculation in Iraq. The International Center for Transitional Justice has just issued a report, "A Bitter Legacy: Lessons of De-Baathification in Iraq," and it is well worth reading as a guide for what not to do when trying to repair broken crockery in the Middle East.

Reporting in recent years has thoroughly exposed the source of this blunder. In his book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran shows that Ahmad Chalabi, the sly, self-aggrandizing émigré leader, convinced Douglas Feith, director of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, that the Baath Party was the functional equivalent of Nazism and that thus Iraq needed to be de-Nazified. Neither the State Department nor the CIA nor even President George W. Bush was prepared to go that far, but Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon was all in. When Paul Bremer, the new head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, was preparing to leave for Iraq, Feith briefed him on the plan, and Bremer seized on it as a decisive break with the past. Once in Iraq, Bremer's senior aides in Iraq told him that ousting tens of thousands of party members would decimate the ministries and outrage Sunnis, but his mind was made up. From this utterly foreseeable mistake (and from the companion error of dissolving the Iraqi Army), disaster flowed.

What the new report vividly demonstrates, though, is that, rather than putting down a marker of American authority in occupied Iraq, Bremer created a monster that quickly lurched out of control and began laying waste to whatever remained of nonsectarian governance in Iraq. American control over the process lasted barely three months. With power passing to the Iraqis, Chalabi created and took over a de-Baathification commission, and he promptly expanded its writ to include new categories of former regime officials to be removed from public positions, established de-Baathification commissions in every ministry, canceled previous reinstatements, and took over the appeals process, thus eliminating due process protections built into the American plan. De-Baathification had become a tool for sectarian score-settling and the promotion of Shiite political goals rather than a means of isolating bad actors.

Over time, Chalabi and his colleagues were able to use de-Baathification to eliminate hundreds of political rivals as well as judges deemed insufficiently committed to Shiite objectives, like imposing the death penalty on Saddam Hussein. The savage civil war that convulsed Iraq beginning in 2004 was provoked in part by Sunnis' recognition that they were the collective losers of the U.S. invasion and that there would be little place for them in the new Iraq.

The Bush administration's conduct in postwar Iraq was so reckless and deluded that one is inclined to draw from it only the most staggeringly obvious lessons: Listen to people who actually know something about the country in question; don't do anything irreversible before thinking about it long and hard; it's the politics, stupid. We know all that now -- and plenty of people knew it before. But if we probe more deeply, the experience also provides guidelines for American behavior elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Bush administration's naiveté took the form of viewing the Baath Party as a cancer that could be safely lanced from an otherwise healthy body politic, rather than as a symptom of a profoundly divided society. This was no mystery: U.N. officials like envoy Lakhdar Brahimi understood that their role was to help Iraqis find a distribution of power and privilege that all parties could live with. Americans, however, could not bring themselves to acknowledge Iraq's sectarian reality until it was too late, for this reality contradicted their airy dreams for remaking the country. If policymakers had understood this from the outset, they would have focused on reintegrating Sunnis as much as on satisfying Shiite demands for justice.

In this respect, Iraq has turned out to be a far more useful model for the post-revolutionary Arab world than we ever would have expected -- or wished. In Egypt, Libya, and Syria, as Aaron David Miller noted Feb. 27, hopes for a new national consciousness have been snuffed out by the power of religious and sectarian identity. In Syria, nonviolent protest against a reviled dictator has gradually evolved into a civil war between a Shiite elite and its Sunni victims. In Egypt and Libya, the divide is not between Sunni and Shiite but between a religious and a more or less secular conception of the state. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya is promoting what one analyst recently called an "unfathomably draconian" law designed to exclude anyone ever associated with Muammar al-Qaddafi's reign, and the group is threatening to bring down the government unless the law is passed as written. The "political isolation" law serves the same nakedly political purposes as did Chalabi's de-Baathification commission. And it will have the same effect of dividing the country into winners and losers.

One lesson of Iraq is thus that the combination of deep sectarian and religious divides, added to a long-suppressed hunger for power and the complete absence of any tradition of compromise, means that it may be many years before Arab states can focus on collective problem-solving rather than competing claims of identity. (Tunisia is the one possible exception.) Another lesson, however, is that outside actors can make things worse, and perhaps better as well. If the United States had acted more like the United Nations -- if Washington had, in fact, empowered the U.N. to act to help broker Iraq's political infighting -- Iraq's Sunnis might not have concluded that the war's net effect was to replace a Sunni dictatorship with a Shiite one. Iraq would still be a mess, but slightly less of one.

How does this lesson apply to states where the United States is an anxious spectator rather than an occupying force? Washington has much less leverage in Egypt than it had in Iraq in 2003, and Barack Obama's administration has limited its capacity to playing the role of honest broker between deeply divided parties by appearing to side with President Mohamed Morsy. Egypt is not going to go the way of Iraq, but it is a mistake to think that a free election there has heralded the arrival of democracy. The administration is right to focus on Egypt's immediate economic prospects, but has been too modest about using the leverage it has to prevent Morsy from establishing a form of majoritarian autocracy. Iraq teaches us that decisions made in early days create a path dependency, for good or ill.

This administration is in no way blithe about the underlying dynamic of Arab states, certainly not as much as the Bush White House was. Obama has, if anything, taken the lesson of Iraq too much to heart in Syria, where he fears doing anything that might inadvertently strengthen the hand of Islamic fundamentalists. He has thus chosen prudence over what could turn out to be reckless action. But the lesson of Iraq is not that the United States can only make things worse, but rather that it has to be acutely aware of the consequences of its actions on volatile societies. Inaction is a policy too, and it has turned out to be just as reckless in its own way, for the combination of endless violence and despair over the outcome has unleashed Syria's sectarian demons. Iraq also reminds us that one of the first jobs in a new Syria, whenever that day comes, will be assuring Alawites, who now rule the country, that they will not suffer collective punishment. Outside actors, including the U.N., will have an important role to play there.

Iraq was the graveyard of American fantasies of transformation. It should not, however, convince us that the United States has no role to play in an Arab world poised between a long autocratic nightmare and the first glimmerings of democracy.

Mario Tama/AFP/Getty Images

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