Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Five years in Iraq--who is the parent and who is the child?

I've been kicking myself for not writing an article on Iraq to be published on the five-year anniversary. Anniversaries prompt reflection, and there's certainly a lot upon which to reflect. Iraq is changed; we are changed; indeed, the world is changed.

Ideally, that change would have been positive, akin to the growth a child experiences in five years, as it miraculously develops its faculties, comprehension, and independence. I had that hope in Iraq in 2003. Many of us felt like mothers in a way-- helping to birth this new nation, a country remade, liberated from a dictator, free to celebrate human rights, freedoms, equality and justice for all. And the Americans weren't alone. The Iraqis whom I met were so overjoyed to be rid of Saddam, so hopeful for the future, and so sure that the superpower had a plan for their country--that soon the streets would be drowning in dollars.

Alas, it's as if we birthed a child only to leave him to the wolves. There was no plan--no post-war (Phase IV) plan, no understanding of realities on the ground, and countless errors of inference. Those early mistakes are well known: standing by while looting engulfed Baghdad, robbing it of its antiquities and heritage, laying waste to infrastructure in government ministries, stealing and destroying an estimated over a billion dollars. In the process, we showed Iraqis that this new sheriff in town was not a sheriff at all, and so new criminals rode into town--al-Qaida, Shia militias, gangs, insurgents.

Add to that the infamous triad of errors enacted by L. Paul Bremer during the Coalition Provisional Authority, that permanently stunted the growth of the child:

--De-Bathification: A CPA order established a commission to prosecute former Baathists and eliminated Baath party members (above Firqa level) from government posts, i.e. the technocrats, professors, bureaucrats with experience and expertise.

--Disbanding the Iraqi army. Despite an estimated 130,000 soldiers waiting in the wings to come back to service, Bremer disbanded the army, without consulting Iraqis or Americans on the ground in Iraq. This instantly put nearly half a million trained, professional soldiers out of work. It's no wonder that an insurgency started developing thereafter, as you had a lot of unemployed, unhappy guys trained to use guns, and who also knew the locations of the unguarded weapons caches.

--Aborting the Interim Iraqi government. ORHA head Jay Garner had been assembling an indigenous group of key leaders to serve as an interim government--moves Bremer quickly quashed as he instead moved the US presence to a legal US-led "occupation", a term not taken to kindly in the Arab world, given the Israel parallel.

So, there we have our child, first robbed blind of clothing through looting, then stripped of its faculties through De-Bathification, abused through disbanding the army, with its independent growth stunted through aborting the moves towards interim government. It's no wonder that the child is confused, conflicted, and fighting to survive.

And what of the parents? Don't we have some responsibility to our child? Do we attempt to redress the errors we committed in its upbringing? Should we plead for forgiveness, pledge to start over, and shower it with affection, the right tools and education? Or, do we give up, and have another one? (Iran, anyone?)

The answer to all of these questions is simple. As parents, we have to realize, that Iraq is no longer a child. In the eyes of the world, she is an adult--a sovereign nation, and free to do as she chooses. Although, like many eighteen year olds in the US who are savoring their legal independence, Iraq seems also conflicted between complete independence and the reliance on parents, however ill-equipped they are. "Do I want to leave their house, (i.e. kick out the Americans), or do I need the security (troops) they provide for a while longer?" As parents, we need to realize the child is grown, that it's impossible to start over. And who would trust us to have another child after the mess we made of the first one? Perhaps the CIA's December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which indicated Iran's cessation of nuclear weapon development in 2003, was like showering the mother on welfare with contraceptives.

But who is really the parent here? And who the child?

In reality, the most astonishing lesson of the Iraq war for Americans is that rather than the Mothers or parents of democracy, we are indeed the children being taught the ways of the world. And perhaps, rather than mere children, Iraq is acting out the role of parent.

Iraq is perhaps the ultimate Mother-figure, the historic Mesopotamia, the "land between the two rivers", between whose flows the cradle of civilization was birthed. Iraqis are people with true wisdom--they first established farming techniques, government, writing, mathematics, astronomy. They have persevered, persisted through millenia of conquest, invasion, and upheaval, and are still surviving. In the span of this long lifetime, five years of hardship are but a drop in the bucket.

America, however, is perhaps the child--the rebellious youth bracing against chastening life experiences. We are loathe to learn that we can't always have it our way and that we don't know it all, that we're no longer invincible and innocent. We're coming face to face with our own mortality; our unbridled, youthful strength is weakened; our empire, crumbling. We learn that change does happen, and it's not always for the better.

One hopes that the youth at this point becomes humbled, and realizes that there is so much that he does not know, that he must prepare, do well in school, study and work hard, and earn a place at the table. He can no longer take success for granted because he has youthful strength and an air of indomitability. He must rather doggedly live by his ideals and pursue his dreams. If not, he will not be successful, and must pass the mantle to others. Those who put in the work, who have results to show for it, will become the true leaders, and they will deserve it.