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.