Haunted by Hussein, humbled by events

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the author of, among many books, "Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground" and "The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War."

I WAS AN EARLY supporter of the invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Since 2003, my firsthand experiences in Iraq have shaken my faith in large-scale demonstrations of military power on land, but I cannot disavow my earlier support, because it was also based on firsthand experiences in Iraq.

To know a totalitarian regime abstractly is different from knowing it intimately. Iraq in the 1980s was so terrifying that going to Damascus from Baghdad was like coming up for liberal humanist air. People talked furtively in Syria; in Iraq, nobody breathed a syllable of opposition. The whole country was like an illuminated prison yard. I was emotionally affected. Recent events make it easy to forget just how bad Iraq was back then.

Like so many others, I believed Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction and that, given the fact of his crimes against humanity, invading Iraq constituted a moral intervention of the first order. In the lead-up to the war, I wrote and said as much in different forums, best summed up in a cover story in the New Republic, “The Liberal Case for War: Saddam Is Worse Than Slobo.”


Fearful of chaos, I preferred the emergence of a benevolent dictator along the lines of Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as a post-invasion, transitional figure. But my correct assumption about the danger of anarchy does not trump my wrong assumption that the invasion would lead to overall good results within a reasonable period of time. The initial preference for an enlightened despot was a hope, not a plan, because the invasion was, in any case, going to lead to a fast-moving, hard-to-steer situation.

I was partial to the prevailing wisdom. Before 9/11, maintaining the “no-fly” zone over Iraq was costing a considerable amount. It was a significant distraction for the U.S. military, and it seemed to have no end in sight. Hussein’s obstruction of the work of United Nations weapons inspectors over the years indicated a presumption of guilt, especially as there were weapons’ stockpiles unaccounted for, and he already had a record of using them. After 9/11, no chances could be taken.

I expected, as should anyone who supports going to war, that there would be a certain amount of bureaucratic incompetence in executing the invasion. The conflict in Kosovo in 1999 was marked by such a level of incompetence, with a NATO alliance that assumed that target lists were a legitimate subject for diplomatic committees. Still, the Clinton administration maintained a reasonable amount of political-military unity at the top, and the State and Defense departments were not at each other’s throats.

The basic reality of the Bush administration, which puts into context many of its mistakes (including not having enough troops on the ground), was that for long periods its military and diplomatic bureaucracies were at odds. The lack of cohesion between State and Defense was one of the reasons for the failure to get approval for U.S. troops to enter Iraq across Turkey’s borders. The fault for this lies primarily not with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell or Vice President Dick Cheney but with President Bush, who had chosen strong personalities (as he should have) for these posts and had the responsibility of reading them the riot act when they did not work as an organic whole.

It is not pleasant to be humbled by events. The failure thus far to secure Iraq raises the issue -- despite the incompetence of the administration -- of whether the invasion was a flawed idea to begin with. The argument will go on for years.

As for myself, because of the way the WMD argument intersected with the humanitarian one -- buttressed, in turn, by my own memories of Iraq -- there was never any chance that I would not have supported the war. Because Hussein’s misrule was beyond normal dictatorship, even someone like me, skeptical about spreading democracy, felt it justified to remove him.


The way to avoid tragedy is to think tragically. Those who invaded the Balkans spoke in idealistic terms about the peoples there, but they generally executed their plans as if they also knew the worst about them. Those whose task it was to plan the invasion and occupation of Iraq not only spoke in idealistic terms about the Iraqis, they apparently believed their own rhetoric to the exclusion of other, more troubling realities.

We are not at the end of things in Iraq. Worse, we are in the middle of them. A national unity government will be a bunch of men in bad suits without institutions at their disposal, save for the United States military.

My most recent searing, first-hand impression of Iraq, from last December, is this one: one town and village after another getting back on its feet, with residents telling American troops not to leave.