Wishful Thinking in Iraq

April 13, 2004 • Commentary

Psychologists know that people in powerful positions often deal with bad news by projecting it in a positive way into the future. Basically, things are bad now but will improve with time. A classic example was the U.S. refrain about light at the end of the tunnel when it was clear we were losing the Vietnam war. But the administration hung on, dug a deeper hole, and then everything eventually caved in. The U.S. situation in Iraq today is similar.

Against the backdrop of the growing anti‐​American insurrection and the indications that the country is about to disintegrate into a bloody civil war, President Bush and his aides seem to be engaging in an exercise of wishful thinking. They are trying to shield the neo‐​conservative ideas that had served for the decision to oust Saddam Hussein and invade Iraq from the contradictory evidence generated by that reality on the ground.

Recall the rosy scenario promoted by the White House: The ouster of Saddam was supposed to usher in a new era of political freedom in Iraq, where the country and its people would be united behind a pro‐​American and democratically elected government. Iraq would be pluralistic, secular, and committed to women’s rights, and would serve as a shining model to the Middle East.

Instead, as the images from Iraq suggest, the repressive military dictatorship of the Ba’ath has given way to political chaos. Real power in the country is not controlled by Ahmed Chalabi and other American puppets, but is in the hands of the religious figures and tribal chieftains and their militias that dominate the three main ethnic and religious groups that constitute the imaginary “Iraqi nation.” There are the violent gangs, linked to former Ba’athist and radical Islamists, which rule the neighborhoods and streets of the “Sunni Triangle,” and for whom the American invasion is seen as part of a strategy to destroy the power of the Sunnis.

The religious Shiite figures range from the “moderates” (who just hate Americans) to the “radicals” (who want to kill Americans). But they are all content to see the Americans fight the Sunnis. They also hope to establish an anti‐​Western clerical regime in Baghdad. And the Kurds enjoy their current U.S.-protected autonomy and look forward to cleansing their areas of Arabs and Turkomans as they continue to cling to their dream of establishing a Greater Kurdistan.

That is the current reality in post‐​Saddam Iraq. It certainly doesn’t match with the Wilsonian fantasies concocted by the neo‐​cons. If anything, it resembles Yugoslavia after the death of Marshall Tito, with the added concern that the election of a an Islamist government in Baghdad and the disintegration of Iraq will play into the hands of anti‐​American terrorists and force regional players like Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to get involved in a potential civil war.

But, according to Bush and the neo‐​cons, we shouldn’t dwell too much on what’s happening in this narrow timeframe and instead, try to project into the future: Accentuate the positive — after all, electricity is working now like it did under Saddam. Eliminate the negative, such as threats to the rights that women had enjoyed under Saddam. And imagine the alternative scenario in which Arab Sunnis and Shiites together with the Kurds establish an Iraqi federation and create a functioning democracy, and use their country’s oil to generate economic prosperity. So Americans need “to stay the course” and “keep their eyes of the prize,” and “look at the Big Picture,” and increase their military commitments and economic assistance to Iraq so as to ensure that the current situation will give way to a positive trend over time.

These forecasts are offered by the same guys who had assured the world that they would discover Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq. On a second thought, Iraq is a big country — the size of California, we are told — and we may still find those WMD sometimes in the future, perhaps at the same time that Iraqi democracy starts spilling into Saudi Arabia.

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