At Large

Nation Building Fantasies

It will be easier, and more practical, to dismember Iraq than to democratize it.

By 1.7.03

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It was an exercise in wishful thinking, and the headline summed it up quite neatly: "U.S. Is Completing Plan to Promote a Democratic Iraq." In other words, the White House wants to install a democracy in a place that has never enjoyed one before, or even shown much interest in acquiring one. The White House wants to do some nation building, and according to the story beneath the headline, this "would amount to the most ambitious American effort to administer a country since the occupations of Japan and Germany at the end of World War II."

Presumably the Bush Administration is serious about this, although you never know. The story was planted in the New York Times, and whether you believed it to be true or not, it had a practical purpose. It was intended to deflect criticism in the Arab world and elsewhere, and to show that in ousting Saddam Hussein the U.S. has only the highest of motives. "Mr. Bush's team," the Times reported, is trying "to allay concerns that the United States would seek to be a colonial power in Iraq."

And no doubt that's true. A docile Iraq would certainly be in our best interest, although the U.S. is not good at colonialism, and must look for other ways to bring that docility about. The other problem, though, is that we are not very good at nation building, either.

Consider the record on this. Somalia was a disaster, and when Madeleine Albright trilled about nation building there she was properly derided. At the same time "Operation Uphold Democracy" was supposed to transform Haiti, but tiny Haiti is as benighted as ever. And despite the brave talk about democratizing Afghanistan, warlords control the country, while its president reigns only in Kabul.

But nation building is a serious matter, and so is democratization, and Iraq, in fact, is a rotten candidate for either. For one thing, it's barely a country. In its previous existence it was three separate provinces in the Ottoman Empire. Then it became a British mandate. That ended in 1932, whereupon the tribes and clans there stopped trying to kill the Brits, and resumed their traditional business of killing one another.

Meanwhile Iraq is still made up of separate communities -- Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Turcomans, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians -- and as nearly as one can determine there is no sense of nationhood among them. The Kurds have been butchered, while the minority Sunnis oppress the majority Shiites. Indeed it would be easier, and more practical, to dismember Iraq than to democratize it. It never should have been a country in the first place.

But according to the story in the Times, the White House will have none of that. Anonymous administration officials say the Pentagon is preparing for a military occupation of Iraq of at least 18 months, but that a civilian administrator would run the country's economy, as well as its schools, and social and political institutions. And at the same time, of course, he will also build a democracy.

The principal champions in the Administration for this nation building apparently are Pentagon civilians, as well as people in and around, and possibly including, Dick Cheney, and assorted neo-cons both in and out of the White House. They all should know better, but they don't, and they seem to think they are on a divine mission: regime change in Iraq today, and then on to the rest of the Middle East, and maybe the Far East tomorrow.

Indeed you may think of them as the intellectual heirs of Leon Trotsky. He wanted to make the world a better place, and free the oppressed with what he called a permanent revolution. The neo-cons, in particular, want to do this, too, but our foreign policy would be in better hands if they didn't.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.