Worst-case scenarios, while statistically possible, are largely improbable. This is unsurprising. Creativity typified by human imagination has led directly to the greatness of high culture. That same restless inventiveness, when applied to frightening scenarios in the real world, can sometimes make the grimmest possible outcomes seem all but inevitable, largely ignoring the realities of a situation or the barriers in place to prevent such horrible occurrences. Occasionally, however, the worst-case scenario happens. Sometimes, the worst-case fails to be imaginative enough, and we gaze on in stunned silence at the aftermath of a tsunami that drowns 200,000 people, a city subjected to flood waters it was supposedly protected against, or two of the tallest buildings in the world reduced to rubble by an unimaginable act of violence. These were sudden shocks to the system. What is happening in Iraq today is a worst-case scenario being played out in slow motion. Iraq is a humbling experience for the human condition. It is the showcase piece in how a society can be induced to consume itself.
The first lesson from the aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime is that democracy is not the default state for government. Power abhors a vacuum, and when left to its own devices, will fill that vacuum quickly with violent competition and strife. We failed in our responsibility to Iraq the second we toppled their government. We replaced a violent, yet stable, system with nothing, and were surprised when nothing turned out to be not an effective form of government. We responded to the chaos left in our military’s wake by patiently waiting for the Iraqis to reestablish order in their broken nation. By the time we could begin supporting a new government, there was a determined foe challenging that government’s façade of national control by killing Iraqis by the thousands.
The next lesson then presented itself. No government can be expected to maintain its legitimacy unless it can handle its own internal security. Despite the presence of an occupying military from the most powerful nation on the planet, Iraq will never be stable until all security operations are conducted by the Iraqi government. The hatred engendered by occupying forces precludes much of the effectiveness they may have. This effectiveness is further eroded by our military’s need to protect its personnel, moving ever further away from real human contact with a people and culture it had little understanding of to begin with.
Conduct of United States forces has also presented a problem. Atrocities have been committed by the American military. Numbers and percentages are immaterial. Their occurrence in and of itself is enough lose the battle of hearts of minds. It’s naïve to think that a war can be fought completely on the up and up, yet the very fact that some of our forces have been reduced to torturing prisoners or killing innocent civilians is further proof that leaving as quickly as possible, before we do any more damage to Iraq and our already shattered international reputation, is essential. As for the Iraqis we have victimized, while we have become an evil presence in their eyes, it is clear that their own countrymen pose a far greater danger to their health and safety than any G.I. And so we come to the latest lesson.
As the Iraqis stand up, we stand down. We have spent an enormous amount of effort and capital to equip and train Iraqi defense forces. These are the people who give legitimacy to the central government. These are the people we are depending upon to make it possible for us to leave by assuming control of the fight against the insurgency. Unfortunately, various outfits within the Iraqi security forces are also acting as death squads. The concern had been for a while that unless we strengthened these forces, Iraq would slip into a bloody civil war. However, the civil war is being ferociously fought already by many of the very people we have entrusted to prevent it. Factions within factions control elements of the security forces, with members being drawn from the various militias of the Shiite strongmen attempting to consolidate control over the country. While the insurgency is largely a Sunni effort, mainly because the bulk of Sunnis are locked out of the halls of power, the institutionalized brutality of the Shiite death squads threatens to spark a genocide. Indeed, concern within the government in Baghdad has grown so acute as to the role of the security forces in civilian deaths, that the new government being formed by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has yet to fill the crucial posts of Ministers of Defense, Interior, and National Security. All of these offices, and the security forces under their purview, have been linked to killings countrywide.
We are now faced with the possibility that the sovereign government we are helping to establish in Iraq will be responsible for tearing the country to pieces. The Iraqis have been standing up, just as we wish them to do, but they are boosting themselves on a growing mound of bodies. This situation would be all the more criminal were we able to do anything effective about it, and refused. We are leaving, however. There is no clear date, and there have been only scattered admissions from the Bush administration that withdrawal has been or is being planned, yet our future in Iraq will be as bystanders, watchful, and hopeful, that this worst-case scenario ends as quickly as possible.