Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Think Beyond Iraq

Stanley Carlson-Thies


January 9, 2006

It is less than three years since US and coalition forces swept into Iraq and swept away Saddam Hussein, and yet the debate about US policy already has declined to the Vietnam-War habit of focusing more on domestic quarrels than on what is happening overseas. Here's a typical comment, from a Washington Post op-ed: "The messy occupation without an end in sight flies in the face of the administration's happy talk before the war about a peaceful, prosperous Iraq that would be a model for the Middle East" (E. J. Dionne, 1/3/06). Of course, the violence and instability in Iraq are disheartening and there is no assurance of a happy ending. Yet surely the vital issues of the war and occupation transcend any disjunction between promised joy and current distress. And surely it is too simple to attribute bad outcomes to bad faith.

US policy and action in Iraq have been confused and uncertain enough. Yet, from the start, the administration has sought to quell the violence, rebuild the economy, prepare Iraqis to take over the security tasks, and coax into being a government that all Iraqis can respect. That none of this has gone smoothly is due only partly to administration miscues.

Take the imperative of creating a representative government. There have been huge strides, culminating in acceptance of a constitution and the December elections for Parliament that drew very high participation, including by Sunnis. Yet the various elections have revealed how deeply divided Iraqis are and how prone they are to vote by group identity and not political vision. The constitution, besides leaving unsettled some key issues, may well not create a robust enough national government. Equally troubling, it remains uncertain how a military force beholden to the whole nation can be created and the various private armies can be quelled.

Better US policy might have mitigated the problems. Yet, at root, the dilemmas were unavoidable. Given Iraqi history, each of the three major groups have good reason to seek first to protect themselves and to have little trust of the others. For a decade, Kurds had to be autonomous, to save them from Saddam Hussein's government. Shias, the majority, naturally seek predominance and, as a previously suppressed group, can hardly be eager to see a Sunni resurgence in the government and military. The Sunnis have every reason not to trust those they previously oppressed. Nor are these problems unique to Iraq. It has proven very hard to construct governments respected by all in other nations where dictators had systematically suppressed all groups but a favored one. Think of Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, or Haiti.

The truth is, Iraq displays a range of challenges that are characteristic of our time. The intelligence about, and international consensus on, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was faulty, but such weapons do exist in this world and cannot simply be wished away. States that support terror, and other states so weak that they cannot put terrorists down, demand a response. Notwithstanding theories of sovereignty, nations should not idly stand by when evil doers controlling other governments systematically brutalize and kill their own citizens. Nor, for all the virtues of international cooperation, will the United Nations and international law deserve deference unless they become reliable and effective promoters of justice and security.

Treating the difficulties of Iraq merely as mud to sling at the administration misinterprets the unavoidable dilemmas of that unhappy place. Worse, regarding Iraq in this crabbed way keeps us from the essential task of reconceiving how justice and security can be promoted in a world increasingly characterized by terror, globalization, massively destructive weapons, and divergent visions of life.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
    Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”