Don Iler - America takes aim, misses
Much has been made of the sectarian differences driving Iraq apart. But beyond that, because of key cultural and historical differences, Iraq’s descent into chaos and the failure of democracy to take hold should come as no surprise.
In an ancient land where bribery is endemic and the rule of law has no history, it was a naïve notion to believe democracy would take root and sprout in the desert.
The border guards at the point of entry knew the routine. The smugglers knew how to use it to their advantage.
U.S. Marine trainers would arrive daily, supervise the Iraqi customs inspectors as they opened car trunks and waved trucks over to inspection stations. Then the Marines would leave for the day, heading to the combat outpost that overlooked the Iraqi border town of Husaybah.
As soon as the Marines left, border guards contacted their smuggler friends from the Syrian side. Trucks, mostly loaded with cigarettes, sometimes with weapons or other dangerous forms of contraband, would be waved through for little more than a bribe.
How does one teach democracy to a people? How does one convince a people that bribery and corruption are wrong, and that advancement should be based on ability?
These things cannot be taught overnight and are not easily infused into a culture’s idea of the world. Certainly, those notions did not last when the United States withdrew from Iraq, much as when the Marines left the border crossing in Husaybah for the night. The ostensibly established institutions began to fall apart immediately.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, with his Shi’i-dominated government, has built distrust and discord. He filled top positions in the army and police force with political appointments, not with people who had merit or training for those jobs. He locked up or otherwise eliminated political rivals, especially Sunnis and Kurds. He did not permit the pluralistic democracy the U.S. supposedly established in Iraq to remain.
The staff sergeant on the training team grew ever-more frustrated as he realized his admonishments came to nothing. He stopped by our hut to tell us it didn’t matter how much he tried to convince the border guards they shouldn’t collect or demand bribes, or that the uninspected trucks waved through the border might carry implements that later could hurt them with a bomb or other kind of attack.
The guards did not see anything wrong with accepting bribes. Drivers entered the checkpoint with money already tucked in their passports, knowing what was expected. No matter what that the staff sergeant did, he could not persuade the guards to reject bribes — his only impact was to draw begrudging compliance while he supervised during the day.
As I left Iraq in February 2009 at the end of my second deployment, I knew it was just a matter of time before the peaceful facade — created by a United States military playing referee — would fall apart.
It’s nearly impossible to explain how vastly different things are in Iraq. The way business is conducted, how people sit down to eat, how women and children are treated — it is all so foreign to us in the United States. It was pure folly to assume that all the institutions built by the U.S., along with the billions of dollars spent, was going to result in an island of democracy. Throw in the region’s dangerous cocktail of oil, religious extremism and volatility, and it’s no wonder Iraq is on its way to becoming another failed state.
Iraq had never held elections in the past. The idea that foreign invaders would suddenly be greeted as liberators who could install a democratically elected government after the horrors of Saddam was as misguided as the search for WMDs.
The notion of Iraqi democracy is futile. That’s not just due to inadequate infrastructure and education, or lack of money. The aim is foolish because the concepts of pluralism, majority rule with minority rights, and rule of law do not exist there; they are not part of the culture.
During my second deployment, Marines from my team visited local police headquarters in Husaybah along with the Marines assigned to train the Iraqi police. At one point, I walked by jail cells and saw civilians delivering food and water to the prisoners.
The prisoners quarreled over the food. Some begged for it; others said they couldn’t have any.
A Marine officer explained how the local chief pocketed the money Americans gave him to feed the prisoners. If prisoners received any food at all, it was because relatives delivered it to them.
The officer said he believed most people in jail were not there for committing a crime, but because an Iraqi officer had a grudge against the inmate’s family. Some of those jailed were there because they could not or would not pay a bribe.
Later in my deployment, an Iraqi police official in town was arrested on suspicion of aiding terrorists. He spent several weeks in a prison in Buka but was released without a trial. Why? His uncle, an officer with clout in the Iraqi army, called in a favor to have his nephew released.
The army and police forces the U.S. left behind were poorly led. Most units were led by political appointments from Baghdad rather than those who merited the positions. Police viewed the people they were supposed to protect as income sources. The already porous border with Syria was populated by “businessmen” with plenty of smuggling experience under Iraq’s embargo in the 1990s. Guards sought quick bucks from bribes rather than preventing further arms and insurgents from crossing.
Husaybah, Rutbah, Fallujah, Waleed, Haditha — and all the other Iraqi places I spent time in — have been overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Although I know the Marines I served with did their jobs with the utmost professionalism, the current state of affairs does not surprise me. The failure in Iraq is not because the American military failed, but because of unrealistic expectations. U.S. partners such as Maliki sabotaged Iraq’s fledgling democracy.
The United States’ adventure in Iraq has been a costly failure in both lives and money. Before further intervention is considered or the U.S. invades another country, there should be serious debate about consequences. Leaders should address whether goals are achievable and whether proposed U.S. partners are trustworthy.
Democracy cannot be imposed; it must come from the people. All the money and institutions in the world cannot suddenly create a society with rule of law in places like Iraq. Other parts of the world think and behave differently than we do.
Even though democracy may be the most ideal form of government, it does not happen overnight or without a citizenry that supports the idea.
Guest writer Don Iler has covered county government and politics for the News-Register since April. He was raised in Bend and served in the Marine Corps for five years as an Arabic linguist. He then attended Oregon State University, where he studied history and served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. Outside of work, Iler enjoys hiking, writing his novel, cooking, baseball and winning at pub trivia.
Don Iler photo
In September 2007 in Rutbah, Iraq, two women walk past a gas station. Cpl. Don Iler was deployed twice to Iraq between 2007 and 2009, and served in Al Anbar province.
Don Iler photo
Outside the police station in Rutbah, Iraq, the man dressed in camo is an Iraqi police officer.
Many taxis park near the market in Rutbah in September 2007.