Iraq and the national psyche

We've talked on here before (specifically sourcreamus's posts) about how the lack of complete success in Iraq might effect not just Iraq, but the US long term. There was an editorial piece in yesterday's LA Times on this very topic by Christopher J. Fettweis.

The consequences for the national psyche are likely to be profound, throwing American politics into a downward spiral of bitter recriminations the likes of which it has not seen in a generation. It will be a wedge that politicians will exploit for their benefit, proving yet again that politics is the eternal enemy of strategy. The Vietnam syndrome divided this country for decades; the Iraq syndrome will be no different.

The battle for interpretation has already begun, with fingers of blame pointed in all directions in hastily written memoirs. The war's supporters have staked out their position quite clearly: Attacking Iraq was strategically sound but operationally flawed. Key decisions on troop levels, de-Baathification, the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the like doomed what otherwise would have been a glorious war.

The American people seem to understand, however — and historians will certainly agree — that the war itself was a catastrophic mistake. It was a faulty grand strategy, not poor implementation. The Bush administration was operating under an international political illusion, one that is further discredited with every car bombing of a crowded Baghdad marketplace and every Iraqi doctor who packs up his family and flees his country.

I disagree with the author on a few points. First, the Iraq War was not lost. Iraq nation-building is what we lost. The Vietnam War itself was lost. We didn't even get to the nation building in Vietnam. This is a vital distinction because psyches are much more prone to depression in response to battle losses, whether they be wars, football games, or workplace politics. Americans will easily get over Iraq, though they'll be reluctant to do something similar in the coming decades, because they didn't lose the War. They won the War.

It's a lot easier to accept the loss in nation-building because it's a lot less dependent on what we did, and what we might have done differently, and much more on what Iraqis did once Saddam was gone. We'll learn the lesson about nation-building for the future, but it won't hurt our psyches.

Fettweis then tailspins into a worst-case disaster scenario, except he makes it sound like the likely outcome.

Iraq has the potential to be far worse. One of the oft-expressed worst-case scenarios for Iraq — a repeat of Lebanon in the 1980s — may no longer be within reach. Lebanon's simmering civil war eventually burned itself out and left a coherent, albeit weak, state in its ashes. Iraq could soon more closely resemble Somalia in the 1990s, an utterly collapsed, uncontrollable, lawless, failed state that destabilizes the most vital region in the world.

Geez, get a grip! This paragraph reminds me of a particular Flash animation I saw prior to the start of the War in May 2003. It was a map of the Middle East with various icons and figures denoting armies and artillery, Risk style, showing the pessimistic scenario of what could happen in the region once activites started. It started out innocuously enough, but then veered into improbability after improbability. Everything that could go wrong did and every uninvolved country got involved. It ended in a nuclear holocaust.

Sure, Iraq could end up like Somalia, but conceivably, so could any other country in the region. The region is and has been "destabilized" for decades. The failed nation-building effort isn't going to change that, nor will it lead to collapse into barbarism.

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Nation Building Short List

the Iraq War was not lost. Iraq nation-building is what we lost. ... Americans will easily get over Iraq, though they'll be reluctant to do something similar in the coming decades

Good point.

I guess the biggest opportunities the US will next have for nation building are Cuba and Haiti (but I'm not staying current on Caribbean news). Zimbabwe will probably fall largely on the shoulders of South Africa; North Korea on South Korea, China and Japan; and Venezuela will be shared between the US and South American countries. I would guess that Central/Western African nations will stay unbuilt for a while. In other words, involvement is likely a function of proximity and trading relationships (actual or potential).

Which leads to a couple of questions:

  1. How should nation building be done (if at all), and
  2. How do you think it will actually pan out, given the US experience in Iraq?

Will the Iraq experience bring the US response to a failed state closer to the ideal, or further from it?