May 23rd, 2023, marks the 20th anniversary of a very pivotal decision made by L. Paul Bremer, who led Iraq’s provisional government after the 2003 invasion and began the transition to a post-Saddam democracy.   Bremer chose to disband the Iraqi military, including the elite Republican Guard, which had steadfastly supported Saddam Hussein.  Reflectively, that seemed like a wise decision at the time: why retain the very core of the regime which was just military toppled? Yet, this seemingly commonsensical decision had terrible unforeseen consequences.

In disbanding Iraq’s professional military class, many of them officers with few other skills, Bremer created a cadre of allies for the newly emerging terrorist group that would become ISIS.  Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi had formed the progenitor of ISIS, Al-Qaeda Iraq, and was intent on fostering a bloody Sunni-Shia war to make the transition to Iraqi democracy untenable.  Into the arms of this radical Sunni terror group these ex-Baathist military personnel fled.  An unholy alliance of ISIS and ex-Baathists made the rebuilding of Iraq a veritable hell on Earth.  Today, we’re fortunate that ISIS is only a shadow of its former self and, though still a threat, nowhere near the heyday it once had when its late “caliph,” Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, delivered a sermon from the Blue Mosque in Mosul on June 9, 2014.

What made the occupation and transition of Iraq, or Afghanistan for that matter, so difficult?  The Taliban, formerly led by Mullah Omar, had sheltered Osama bin Laden, giving the U.S. a genuine post-9/11 pretext for invading.  Yet unlike Iraq following America’s withdrawal, local government and military forces were corrupt and insufficient for stopping a Taliban resurgence, which returned to Afghan power in 2021.  The “War on Terror” covered a political legacy of twenty years, with very mixed, and particularly in Afghanistan regrettably disappointing results.  What gave us the hubris to attempt this, and where did our judgment go wrong?

There was some historical precedent for success.  Post-WWII, the U.S. had been able to install functioning democratic regimes in both Japan and West Germany, but the political and cultural circumstances in both places were vastly different than both Iraq and Afghanistan.   Both Japan and Germany had been highly economically and technologically advanced and so there were competent people to hand the implements of power to after the war.  In Japan, racial and cultural homogeneity assured a vastly greater degree of consensus than in polarized Iraq.  Iraq had the curious curse of being a majority Shia Muslim nation under a minority Sunni Baathist dictatorship.  In Germany, matters were in some sense “simplified” by the division of East and West Germany, but history records what failure the East was under Communism, contrasted to the West under democracy and a free market.  Neither the economic and political institutions nor the sense of cultural and religious unity were present in Iraq or Afghanistan.  So, what are the conditions sufficient for the restoration and rebuilding of a country?

  1. First, the political illness that afflicted it must be thoroughly defeated both militarily and ideologically.  
  2. Second, there should be sufficient economic factors in place to rebuild the country, to make radical options less attractive.
  3. Third, that a cultural belief be in place that glues the country together and builds consensus towards a new direction of political and economic development.
  4. Fourth, that no strategic decisions are taken which severely hamper the process.

There certainly may be other essential factors, but for the purpose of this short article these may suffice.  Looking above, Paul Bremer’s May 23rd decision violates the last proposition, yet he had no way of knowing this at the time.  As sensible as it may have seemed in the present moment, in hindsight it was a regrettable blunder.  No harsh blame might lay with him for, in addition, one can argue that many of the other factors were also not aligned.  Al-Qaeda had not been defeated ideologically, for Zarqawi gave his fealty to it in 2003 (factor #1).  There was certainly not the cultural glue and unity in Iraq necessary for rapid reunification and consensus in a new direction (factor 3).  And what economy (factor 2) did Iraq have to put people back to work and divert them from fighting?

If there are conditions where Just War theory can be applied, or where non-violent resistance (as with Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.) is most apt, there ought also to be a greater sense of what builds, and rebuilds, a nation.  Many of the factors above could be tailored to examine the political health and vitality of any nation, not just those which have had an unjust regime toppled.  Factor 3, the “cultural belief be in place that glues the country together and builds consensus,” is unfortunately even in question in this nation.  With ardent Trump supporters on one end of the spectrum and a polarizing liberal agenda on the other, the United States’ political fabric is strained. All who love America hope to have the words and actions to bring us together around a more viable consensus.

Twenty years after Bremer’s decision we find ourselves again in similarly turbulent waters.  There are currents of hope, but also disturbing undercurrents of chaos and disharmony.  Understanding the signs of the times and seriously reading the political climate is a task which never ends.  Politics is a fight for justice, and against injustice, vacillating in the crosswinds of power and truth.  Mindful of the many blessings we do have, it is a relief to go to sleep in a nation with still so much promise.  Yet to close our eyes to ongoing perils, the tasks of restoring good beliefs and political-economic institutions that sustain democracy, is to invite reliving a nightmare.  Moving forward, it must be known that a nation does not just boil down to politics or economy, though the health of these is essential.  The health of a nation is also measured by a possible consensus of good belief, that the way forward unites us in trust and confidence.