Iraq: Lessons (Not) Learned

Among the growing number of recent cases where international actors have become engaged in trying to rebuild a shattered state and construct democracy after conflict, Iraq is somewhat unique. The state collapsed not as a result of a civil war or internal conflict, but as a result of external military action to overthrow it. We are still very much in the middle of an internationally assisted political reconstruction process in Iraq, and we will not know for a year or two, or maybe five or ten, the outcome of the postwar effort to rebuild the Iraqi state. Nevertheless, some important lessons can be identified.

Prepare For A Major Commitment

Rebuilding a failed state is an extremely expensive and difficult task under any circumstance, and even more so in the wake of violent conflict. Success requires a very substantial commitment of human and financial resources, delivered in a timely and effective fashion, and sustained over an extended period of time, lasting (not necessarily through occupation or trusteeship, but at least through intensive international engagement) for a minimum of five to ten years.

Commit Enough Troops

One of the major problems with the American engagement in Iraq is that there were not enough international troops on the ground in the wake of state collapse to secure the immediate postwar order. As a result, Iraq descended into lawless chaos once Saddam's regime fell. The United States Army wanted a much larger force on the ground in order to secure the postwar order, something like 400,000 troops rather than the total invasion force of less than 200,000 that was ultimately authorized. Of course, what is needed is not simply enough troops but the right kind of troops with the proper rules of engagement. It does no good to have troops on the ground if they simply stand by and watch what is left of the state being stolen and burned. One lesson of Iraq is that international post-conflict stabilization missions need to be able to deploy not just a conventional army but a muscular peace implementation force that is somewhere between a war-making army and a crime-fighting police, between a rapid reaction and riot control force.

Mobilize International Legitimacy and Cooperation

In the contemporary era, a successful effort at post-conflict reconstruction requires broad international legitimacy and cooperation, for at least two key reasons. First, the scope and duration of engagement is typically more than any one country-and public-is willing to bear on its own. The broader the international coalition, the greater the human and financial resources that can be mobilized, and the more likely that the engagement of any participating country can be sustained, as its public sees a sense of shared international commitment and sacrifice. Second, when there is broad international engagement and legitimacy, people within the post-conflict country are less likely to see the intervention as the imperial project of one country or set of countries. All other things being equal, international cooperation and legitimacy tends to generate greater domestic legitimacy-or at least acceptance-for the intervention.

Generate legitimacy and trust within the post-conflict country

No international reconstruction effort can succeed without some degree of acceptance and cooperation-and eventually support and positive engagement-from the people in the post-conflict country. Without some degree of trust in the initial international administration and its intentions, the international intervention can become the target of popular wrath, and will then need to spend most of its military (and administrative) energies defending itself rather than rebuilding the country and its political and social order. Unfortunately, these qualities were lacking in the occupation of Iraq, and the Iraqi people knew it. From the very beginning, the American occupation failed to earn the trust and respect of the Iraqi people. As noted above, it failed in its first and most important obligation as an occupying power-to establish order and public safety. Then it failed to convey early on any clear plan for post-conflict transition.

All international post-conflict interventions to reconstruct a failed state on more democratic foundations confront a fundamental contradiction. Their goal is, in large measure, democracy: popular, representative, and accountable government, in which "the people" are sovereign. But their means are undemocratic: in essence, some form of imperial domination, however temporary and transitional. This requires a balancing of international trusteeship or imperial functions with a distinctly non-imperial attitude and some clear and early specification of an acceptable timetable for the restoration of full sovereignty. As much as possible, the humiliating features of an extended, all-out occupation should be avoided.

Hold Local Elections First

One of the toughest issues on which to generalize concerns the timing of elections. Ill-timed and ill-prepared elections do not produce democracy, or even political stability, after conflict. Instead, they may only enhance the power of actors who mobilize coercion, fear, and prejudice, reviving autocracy and even precipitating large-scale violent strife. In Angola in 1992, in Bosnia in 1996, and in Liberia in 1997, rushed elections set back the prospects for democracy and, in Angola and Liberia, paved the way for renewed civil war. There are therefore compelling reasons, based in logic and in recent historical experience, for deferring national elections until militias have been demobilized, new moderate parties trained and assisted, electoral infrastructure created, and democratic media and ideas generated. International interventions that seek to construct democracy after conflict must balance the tension between domination for democracy and withdrawal through democracy. In these circumstances, two temptations compete: to transform the country, its institutions and values, through an extended and penetrating occupation (à la British colonial rule), and to hold elections and get out as soon as possible. The question is always, in part, how long can international rule be viable? In Iraq, for better or worse, the answer-readily apparent from history, and from the profound and widespread suspicion of American motives in the region and among Iraqis themselves-was: not long.

Disperse Economic Reconstruction Funds and Democratic Assistance As Widely As Possible

Both for the effectiveness and speed of economic revival, and in order to build up local trust and acceptance, there is a compelling need for the decentralization of relief and reconstruction efforts, as well as democratic civic assistance. The more that the international administration, as well as private donors, works with and through local partners, the more likely that their relief and reconstruction efforts will be directed toward the most urgent needs, and the better the prospect for the accumulation of political trust and cooperation with the overall transition project. In Iraq there was a particularly compelling need for the creation of jobs, which might have been done more rapidly by channeling repair and reconstruction contracts more extensively through a wide range of local Iraqi contractors, instead of through the big American mega-corporations.

Proceed With Some Humility

This encompasses perhaps the ultimate, overarching contradiction. It is hard to imagine a bolder, more assertive, and self-confident act than a nation, or a set of nations, or "the international community," intervening to seize effective sovereignty in another nation. There is nothing the least bit humble about it. But ultimately the intervention cannot succeed, and the institutions it establishes cannot be viable, unless there is some sense of participation and ultimately "ownership" on the part of the people in the failed and re-emerging state. This is why holding local elections as early as possible is so important. It is why it is so vital to engage local partners, as extensively as possible, in post-conflict relief and economic reconstruction. And it is why the process of constitution making must be democratic and broadly participatory.