One Year Later: Warning Signs in Iraq

March 24, 2004 • Commentary
This article was published by In the National Interest, March 24, 2004.

The U.S. mission in Iraq has now entered its second year, and it remains as controversial as ever. Bush Administration supporters contend that, despite the periodic terrorist bombings and insurgent attacks on American forces, major progress is being made toward creating a stable, united, democratic Iraq. Critics counter that not only does the security environment remain extremely dangerous, but there are increasingly worrisome political and ideological trends in Iraqi society.

A recent nationwide poll of Iraqis conducted by ABC News and other organizations gives some comfort to the administration and its allies. A majority of Iraqis feel that their lives are somewhat better than they were a year ago, and the coalition gets reasonably high marks for restoring schools and other portions of Iraq’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, the poll reveals even more alarming information about Iraqi attitudes toward the occupation and the country’s political future.

Consider the level of hostility regarding the presence of coalition forces. The Kurds strongly support the troop presence, 82 percent to 12 percent. But the Arabs (both Sunni and Shiite) take a very different view. Only 30 percent support the occupation; 60 percent oppose it. Since Arabs make up approximately 80 percent of Iraq’s population, that scope of opposition is ample cause for concern. Clearly, opposition to the U.S.-led mission is far more widespread than just disgruntled supporters of Saddam Hussein.

More Iraqis believe that the war humiliated Iraq than believe that it liberated the country. Again, the Kurd‐​Arab split is pronounced and troubling. Only 11 percent of Kurds believe the war was a humiliation; 48 percent of Arabs regard it in that manner. Just 33 percent of Arabs (and a mere 21 percent of Sunni Arabs) see the war as an act of liberation.

Proponents of the Iraq mission can take some comfort that 78 percent of all respondents, and even 74 percent of Arabs, believe that armed attacks on coalition forces constitute unacceptable behavior. Yet it is sobering that 21 percent of Arab respondents think that such attacks are appropriate. That figure can fairly be interpreted as the hard core supporters of the insurgency. Since there are nearly 16 million Arab teenagers and adults in Iraq, that translates to some 3.3 million proponents of violent resistance to the occupation. It is additional evidence that the insurgency is not confined to “Saddam diehards,” as the administration argued for so long.

Perhaps the most sobering result of the poll is the tepid support for democracy in Iraq. When asked what kind of government Iraq should have a year from now, only 28 percent advocate a democratic system, while 47 percent favor “a single strong Iraqi leader” and 10 percent want a government of religious leaders. When asked what kind of government the country should have in 5 years, the results are just modestly better: 42 percent favor democracy, 35 percent a single strong leader, and 10 percent a government of religious figures.

That means that the United States and its coalition partners are trying to build democracy in a country where not even a bare majority of the population endorses such a system. For democracy to have a good chance to take root and thrive, the support level probably needs to be in the area of 70 to 75 percent. That is especially true because, historically in most non‐​Western societies, non‐​democratic forces tend to be more motivated, better organized, and, above all, more ruthless than their democratic adversaries. It is hardly encouraging for the prospects of a democratic Iraq that the enemies of democracy there actually outnumber the proponents.

The poll results raise serious doubts about whether the security environment will improve anytime soon. Except in the Kurdish north, the war is deemed a humiliating occupation rather than a liberation. Likewise, except in Kurdish territory, there appears to be widespread opposition to the occupation, and an alarmingly large contingent of hard‐​core opponents willing to countenance violence against coalition forces.

The poll results lead to even stronger doubts about Iraq’s future. The notion that Iraq will become a stable, united democracy once the occupation ends looks more like a pipe dream than a reasonable expectation. Unless the United States plans to occupy and control Iraq for a very long time, it is likely that the country will revert to authoritarian rule. Given the stark differences in opinion on an assortment of issues between Kurds and Arabs, there is also more than a small chance that the country will fragment along those ethnic lines. Those are not happy prospects, but they come as little surprise to realist policy experts who warned before the war began that the United States was embarking on a thankless and frustrating mission.

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