March 30, 2006
In this month's Atlantic Monthly, Robert Kaplan takes a hard look at the U.S.-led reconstruction of Iraq. The title of the article is a take-off on his landmark 1994 article "The Coming Anarchy," which was dismally pessimistic about prospects for governability and development in Africa, and in much of the Third World. Now his pessimism is offset by guarded optimism. His newest article is based largely on his recent visit to Iraq, focusing on the pacification efforts of the 1st (Stryker) Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division deployed in Mosul. When they arrived in September 2004, the streets were in chaos, and the police were nowhere to be seen. Now, there is a semblance of normalcy, and the police actually make patrols. Kaplan provides a balanced, truthful depiction of current conditions in the parts of Iraq that do not make the evening news. He does not paint a "rosy scenario," and he blames the Bush administration for failing to provide sufficient material and manpower resources to ensure a successful transition. Nevertheless, he thinks that Iraq's long-term prospects are reasonably good, which may bode well for other parts of the Third World. He lauds the trial-and-error learning experience of U.S. Army and Marine units, which are getting better and better all the time at the challenging, difficult, often delicate task of instilling order while building trust.
The biggest problem, as Kaplan rightly notes, is the leadership void on the part of most Iraqis, who are used to timid, blind obedience to an all-powerful despot. The idea that there should be an ongoing contest to see who is most worthy to lead -- whether based on merit, courage, or charisma -- is quite alien to their experience. It's the same problem that exists in all post-totalitarian societes, from Germany to Japan to Russia to Romania. The human qualities of leadership that are needed in democratic governments are systematically squelched by dictators, lest someone arise to take their place. In some formerly dictatorial countries, there remains a latent capacity in society to adjust and make the transition to freedom, while others fall short. There is simply no pat solution to this dilemma; at some point Iraqi leaders are going to "step up to the plate" and assume primary responsibility for their country's security, or else Iraq will remain mired in protracted violence for years to come.
President Bush always speaks with confidence about the ability of the Iraqis to "stand up" while our forces gradually "stand down," but he might consider a blunter rhetorical approach to galvanize the Iraqis into action. He should repeat his firm assurance that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq and do all we can to encourage a transition to stable self-government. This implies, very subtly, that we simply cannot do it all on our own; it also implies that there is a time limit to our involvement. The danger with saying that we will stay "as long as necessary," as Bush often does, is that it downplays the urgent need for Iraqi leaders to step forward and build a strong state that commands respect. This is a subtle distinction, between intensity of effort versus duration of effort, but I think it would convey the right message to the Iraqi people, who need to be reassured but not coddled. Bush needs to spell out, in an appropriately discreet way, the hideous, dire consequences of ultimate failure on the part on the Iraqi leaders themselves: a hellish, Hobbesian nightmare.
I was recently shocked to learn that 1st Lieutenant Sarah Small, a former student of mine at Mary Baldwin College, died in a road accident last September while serving on a mission in Egypt. She is the first graduate of the ROTC-affiliated Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL) to have made the ultimate sacrifice. She was a public affairs officer in the U.S. Air Force. I remember Sarah as a bright, enthusiastic student who displayed a mature devotion to her country. She was in my seminar in Third World Security Issues, the subject matter of which was a bit more challenging than some of the students had bargained for. I am sure that it benefited Sarah in carrying out her duties in the Middle East. On Saturday there was a ceremony for her on the MBC campus, at which her parents were present, and a memorial placque was dedicated to her. Mr. and Mrs. Small should be very proud of their daughter, and they deserve public recognition and sympathy for their painful, tragic loss. For details, see the Staunton News Leader.