Violence in Iraq shows no sign of easing. With Americans soon to head to the polls and the U.S. death toll in Iraq nearing 3,000, the mission is certainly not accomplished. Politicians and pundits both line up to point the finger of blame. The insurgency in Iraq is the fault of poor leadership, they argue.
Many single out Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer's orders disbanding the Iraqi army and implementing de-Baathification, the removal from their jobs of members of Saddam Hussein's political party, as reasons for the current quagmire. They say these orders left trained, armed cadres no choice but to fight. Through repetition alone, this analysis has been defined as reality. Too bad, then, that facts get in the way.
Bremer was the wrong man at the wrong time, but his dissolution of the army merely confirmed fact: Tens of thousands of Iraqis conscripted by Hussein had abandoned their uniforms weeks before. Top-level officers were complicit in gross human-rights violations. Mid-level officers? Bremer recruited them to staff the new Iraqi security forces. There were mistakes, though. Before the war, the State Department stymied plans to train a vetted Iraqi officer corps to take charge of the army and maintain postwar security. Training Iraqis to maintain security, they argued, would undercut diplomacy.
Condemning de-Baathification is also counterproductive. The Baath Party's ideological roots lie in World War II fascism. While many of the two million members joined only to qualify for jobs, de-Baathification affected only the 40,000 complicit in abuse. The idea that de-Baathification hampered reconstruction is false. Under Hussein, promotions were not based on ability, but on loyalty. That Iraqi schools and hospitals had become so decrepit was the result of poor management. Don't blame sanctions: Iraq had billions to spend on food, medicine and infrastructure, but chose instead to build palaces and prisons.
While it's fashionable to say de-Baathification caused the Sunni insurgency, in reality terrorist violence is proportional to that policy's reversal. In order to maintain security after the April 2004 siege of Fallujah, the coalition restored former Baathists. Car bombings increased 300 percent within a month. In Mosul, once deemed a model city of reconciliation, Gen. David Petraeus appointed senior Baathist Gen. Mohammed Kheiri Barhawi to be police chief. Petraeus' decision was a triumph not of pragmatism, but of naïveté. Barhawi provided intelligence, equipment and arms to terrorists, finally handing over every police station in the city to the insurgents in November 2004.
Far from winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis, re-Baathification antagonized them. Not all Iraqis had joined the party, and the refuseniks suffered for their morality. Non-Baathist Ph.D.s could not even work as schoolteachers and had to beg for food. After Saddam Hussein's fall, they joined schools in droves, eager to rebuild their country. Re-Baathification meant firing competent new teachers to reinstall corrupted predecessors who, as the Baath Party archives show, had created blacklists of 14-year-old students under their charge.
Realists may say foreign policy should be centered on U.S. interests, not justice. Here, too, though, re-Baathification has failed. It has not assuaged insurgency. Not only does offering concessions to violence encourage violence, but also by extending an olive branch to unrepentant Baathists, diplomats may have furthered Iranian influence and worsened militia violence. Many Iraqi Shiites distrust Washington, not for occupying Iraq in 2003, but for failing to do so 12 years earlier when they rose up to oust Hussein, only to suffer retaliatory massacres. It should not surprise that Iraqi Shiites look at U.S. outreach to Baathists as a sign that the younger Bush will betray them just as his father once did.
Tehran exploits such fears. On Sept. 2, an Iranian news agency reported that President Bush visited Saddam Hussein to talk about his restoration. That the story is false is irrelevant; many Shiites see re-Baathification as evidence of its plausibility. They turn to the Shiite militias as a hedge against a repeat of 1991. For the sake of appeasing 40,000 Baathists, proponents of reconciliation risk antagonizing 16 million Shiites.
Amid great American sacrifice, the decision to liberate Iraq has come to symbolize the dangers of unintended consequences. Critics say the Iraq campaign increased terrorism and not democracy. History will decide. But unintended consequences are not limited to the decision to initiate war. Sometimes, premature reconciliation, no matter how well-meaning, can do far more harm than good.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has spent more than 20 months in Iraq, both as a professor and a Coalition Provisional Authority employee.