Mission Impossible

Too confident of the inevitability of democracy in Iraq, America's leaders made serious errors, Francis Fukuyama and other early advocates of U.S. intervention have concluded as the conflict enters its fourth year.

March 19, 2006|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

Back in the 1990s, when Francis Fukuyama spoke, the emerging neoconservative movement listened.

This Johns Hopkins University professor was often saying - especially in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man - what the neocons wanted to hear.

Now he is not. His new book, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy, takes the neocons to task for, among other things, getting the United States involved in the Iraq war.

That judgment from someone once considered a neocon icon appears to be cementing a consensus among both experts and the general public - as expressed in recent polls - that the United States made serious errors when it invaded Iraq three years ago this week, errors in intelligence, in strategy and in tactics. Still uncertain is what these judgments suggest about our future course of action in that country.

"In Iraq, the fundamental flaw was certainly the specific misunderstanding of how easy the democratic transition would happen," Fukuyama said last week from his office at Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

"There was this belief that somehow democracy was the default position to which a society would revert if only it got rid of a dictator that was preventing it," he said.

"It was like a river reverting to its natural streambed once you got rid of the dam," he said. "People simply didn't understand what would happen in the actual process of blowing up the dam, that it would be very destructive to lots of things."

For many, Fukuyama's insights are nothing new. They were obvious to those who warned against invading Iraq three years ago.

"It was so appalling to see the entire political system march off with almost no dissent on a mission that on independent professional circuits was considered in advance to be an obvious misjudgment," said John Steinbrunner, professor of public policy and director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"And it wasn't just outside opinion. Inside the Army, particularly, it was the common judgment that this was definitely the wrong thing to do," he said.

In this view, a crucial part of the military misjudgment evolved from the flawed assumption about the inevitability of democracy. This supported a strategy of invading Iraq with a small army designed only to win a quick victory, not to enforce postwar order.

"I think part of what we have learned in the last three years is what a whole lot of people knew before the invasion," said Ted Robert Gurr, recently retired from the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland. "The people whose learning was far behind the curve were, unfortunately, the neocons and the people who made the decisions.

"They simply failed, and in some cases explicitly refused, to take the advice of people in the intelligence and academic communities," Gurr said.

Fukuyama, in his analysis, finds that neoconservatives relied much too heavily on the example of the emergence of democracies in the former Soviet satellites in Europe.

"There was a certain misinterpretation of the lessons of the end of the Cold War," Fukyama said, pointing to beliefs that all totalitarian regimes would collapse in the way communism did. "The circumstances at that time in Europe do not apply to other parts of the world."

David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees, noting that many in the Bush administration making decisions about the post-Sept. 11 world "approached this with a notion in mind that came from the fact that the formative experience in their adult life was the collapse of communism and the embrace of democracy in Eastern Europe."

"It was a false analogy. With different conditions it would not have happened that way," he said. "In some respects, they were simply victims of their own past. You talk about fighting the last war; they were winning the last victory."

At the same time, Rothkopf said, planning for the Iraq invasion did center on the last war - the one fought by the senior George Bush against Saddam Hussein.

"One of the problems was that people were focusing on what we thought was necessary to win Gulf War One, defeating Saddam's Republican Guard," he said. "Clearly there was this expectation going in that you topple Saddam, you get rid of the Republican Guard, then there would be this spontaneous outbreak of democracy.

"Nobody who studied Iraq thought that was going to be the case," Rothkopf said. "There were State Department experts who knew what to expect. The same with the CIA. It's not like the wisdom didn't exist in the U.S. government. The problem was that the people at the top - most notably [Secretary of Defense Donald H.] Rumsfeld, with the support of the vice president and the president - literally covered their ears.

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