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

Terms of Engagement

A Country Unto Itself

There’s no place like India. Which is precisely why its politics and economy are such a contradictory, beautiful mess.

NEW DELHI — India does not reconcile contradictions so much as inhabit them. Is there one god? Three? Gods? Without number? Yes, yes, and yes. Visitors are instructed to leave their Cartesian logic at passport control. This is contrary to my all-too-binary nature. But after two weeks in Delhi talking to people about the wrinkled, lumbering, battle-scarred pachyderm that is the Congress Party, I have begun to accept that it may be precisely Congress's capacity to live blithely with contradiction that accounts for its astonishing persistence (that, and the Gandhi family name).

The other day, I went to speak to Meenakshi Natarajan, a parliamentarian and one of the party's bright young stars. Congress, she explained to me, had lost its way when it embraced economic liberalism in the 1990s but now had reached the right balance: growth-oriented policies to generate surplus to spend on massive schemes for the poor. Now, this makes no sense: A paternalistic welfare state, unless it sits on an ocean of oil, will eventually stop generating the growth that funds its generous outlays. And yet this is pretty much what the Congress has done since gaining power in 2004. If Congress has any prospect of winning the elections next year, it will be thanks to what the party calls "inclusive growth."

The budget speech which P. Chidambaram, the deft finance minister ("Harvard-educated," as the papers here like to note), gave earlier this week would have fit right in at, say, the 1984 Democratic convention, when U.S. liberals were beholden to its various special interests. He began by talking about the projected 12.5 percent increase in spending over the last year on Scheduled Castes -- or untouchables, as they used to be stigmatized -- and so-called Scheduled Tribes. Then the minister detailed new spending on women, on children and minorities, including a new bank for women. He had, he said, set aside $2 billion for a program to distribute food to the poor -- a plan which even some party officials thought might better be put off in the name of fiscal discipline. Chidambaram had goodies for every one of India's needy groups. The speech took almost two hours, in part because he had so many gifts to distribute.

And yet the speech also satisfied the business community, which wanted to see government investment in infrastructure as well as a commitment to reducing the deficit, which is now 5.3 percent of gross domestic product. Chidambaram appears to have crafted a growth-oriented budget which would generate surplus to spend on schemes for the poor. I still don't understand how he nailed this double-somersault so cleanly; it may have had something to do with an extremely aspirational growth projection which assumed an increase in tax revenue equal to the expenditures he proposed. In that case, of course, the miracle will vanish soon enough, though hopefully not before the 2014 elections.

Congress Party officials will tell you that their policies are "pro-poor," an expression which denotes not only the redistribution of wealth from haves to have-nots, as in most welfare states, but the use of direct state programs to supply food, work, power, fertilizer, and other essential goods to the poor as well as the middle-class. To put it simply, the Congress is a socialist party at a time when the West has abandoned socialism. But the government also commissioned Raghuram Rajan, a former senior official with the International Monetary Fund, to write the government's Economic Survey, which called for precisely the kind of reforms in labor market and land acquisition which party regulars stoutly resist. The survey came out the day before the budget speech. As Shekhar Shah, director of the independent National Council of Applied Economic Research, notes, it's impossible to imagine Barack Obama's Treasury Department issuing a major report so completely at variance with his own views.

You don't have to be a socialist to see the validity of India's welfare schemes, like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which provides day labor to Indian farmers during idle periods. The rising tide of urban economic growth does not lift the boats of the rural poor in India. The same is true with India's incredibly elaborate system of "reservations," which provide slots at universities and in government jobs for disadvantaged groups like Scheduled Castes and Tribes. In a system in which hierarchies are as deep-rooted as they are in India, social mobility will not come about simply because of the pull of economic opportunity. But India's welfare schemes are wildly wasteful. Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi's son and India's most technocratic prime minister, famously asserted in the 1980s that only 15 percent of welfare payments actually reached the poor; the rest went to bureaucracy or "leakage" -- i.e., theft. Absent the sort of reform which the pro-market wing of the party advocates, this sort of bureaucratic statism will kill the golden goose of economic growth.

The "pro-poor" vision is the heart and soul of the Congress. "We give voice to the voiceless," Meenakshi Natarajan said to me, quoting Nehru. Rajiv's widow, Sonia Gandhi (he was assassinated in 1991) is a committed socialist; their son and heir apparent, Rahul, is deep-dyed in the Congress tradition. And many Congress officials think the party went astray when it liberalized the Indian economy in 1991. You can still get into arguments with them about whether GDP growth even matters. And whatever its merits as economic policy, pro-poor policy works very well as politics: scarcely anyone doubts that Congress won in 2009 thanks to programs like the employment scheme. There's a reason why Chidambaram found room for the food security program.

But the amazing thing about political life in this country is that many Indians are convinced that India is sui generis. The fact that something works or doesn't work elsewhere tells you nothing about India, because no other place is like India. I often get into arguments here where I find myself defending, say, India's admittedly corrupt and patronage-ridden democracy on the grounds that things are no better, and perhaps worse, in Brazil or Indonesia. "Brazil!" someone will sneer. "The whole population of Brazil could fit into UP (Uttar Pradesh, which has 200 million people)!" And woe be unto him or her who thinks to compare India favorably to Pakistan -- as if that hive of pathology bears comparison to the world's largest democracy. No, India can only be judged a success or a failure in comparison to itself.

So, how is India doing compared to itself? India suffers from a bad case of Greatest Generation envy, since Jawaharlal Nehru and his team of rivals really were great men who delivered India safe and more or less sound through the storms of Partition and the threat of fragmentation. But even leaving nostalgia aside, Indian politics, as I wrote last week, seems to have lost its capacity to represent national aspirations, and seems to be slipping into a phase of regionalism and of weak central government. So in that respect at least, not so great.

The economy, however, is another matter. India has been a far, far better place since it left behind Nehru's infatuation with state control of the "commanding heights" of the economy. The budget now available to India's central planners -- yes, India still has a central planning commission -- is 15 times greater than it was 20 years ago. That buys a lot of help for the poor, as well as for everyone else. Congress had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the late 20th century. Still, the party has been in power for 14 of the last 20 years.

The auguries for 2014 look very bad for the Congress -- though it's not quite clear just who they look good for. Somebody else is likely to have a chance to try their hand at running India's economy; possibly a party more unambiguously committed to market-oriented policies, like the right-leaning (and Hindu nationalist) Bharatiya Janata Party. Maybe they'll prove that what works in other places works in India too. On balance, I doubt it.