As one of those who thought the invasion of Iraq was a good thing to do for both humanitarian and strategic reasons, the flow of books by those who went there after the invasion or by Iraqis who did their best to put it on the path to democracy all tell essentially the same story. Iraqis were totally unprepared to rule themselves and thus create a modern bulwark against the menace of al Qaeda's or Iran's fanatical Islamism.
Iraq has become like the tar baby in the Uncle Remus story about the way Brer Fox lured Brer Rabbit into a fight with a tar baby. He got so angry at the tar baby that would not respond to his questions that his vanity got the better of Brer Rabbit who punched it and discovered he was stuck. He butted it with his head and got further stuck. How that rabbit avoided becoming dinner for Brer Fox is unknown, but it is rumored Brer Bear extricated him.
The people of the United States are locked into a debate about whether to get out of Iraq without actually looking like we are abandoning it or whether to stay as long as it takes to get Iraq onto a more secular, modern path.
There was a history lesson that was in the back of my mind during the entire run-up to the invasion, but I paid it little heed. In retrospect, George Herbert Walker Bush, our 41st President, seems like a genius for not deposing Saddam Hussein and occupying Iraq. That decision, however, does not change the fact that Saddam and his sons were permitted to cheat, steal and murder until George W. Bush put an end to their three decades of horror.
John Agresto is a former president of St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who was asked to join the Coalition Provisional Authority to help restore Iraq's educational system after the invasion. He has written "Mugged By Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions" and I recommend you read it.
Agresto was there from 2003 to 2004 and his observations reflect those raised and educated in the West who must confront a culture so radically different from their own that it becomes a lesson on why the Middle East has remained a stagnant sinkhole for centuries, resistant to change, armored against rational behavior, and chained to barbarism.
"It was not America's lack of awareness of 'Iraqi culture' or 'the character of the Middle East' that harmed the mission," wrote Agresto, "so much as our amazing incomprehension of human nature, our blindness to the power of fiercely held notions of religion and morality and honor, our misunderstanding of all that real democracy entails, and our ignorance of the damaging effects of tyranny on a people's outlook and character."
"We are in danger of losing all we hoped to accomplish in Iraq because we haven't a clue as to how to be an effective occupying power." Two generations past the remarkable job our grandparents did in a defeated Japan and Germany and we have forgotten how a victorious nation should function to restore a former enemy to the world.
That was immediately evident to everyone who watched via television the looting that broke out after the American and coalition forces occupied Baghdad and other cities. The first mistake was not to use our military to put an end to it if, in fact, that was even possible. The only building in Baghdad the coalition protected was the oil ministry.
Instead of being welcomed as liberators-the widespread expectation of the neocons-our failure to impose control, i.e., security, on the population led to a cascade of failures. "It was our lack of power-our inexplicable inability to get things moving, to stop the looters and vandals, to find the troublemakers and punish the terrorists-that led to our being held in contempt by so many Iraqis," wrote Agresto.
What most of us failed to realize was that the structural damage inflicted by the invasion was nothing compared to the destruction that Iraqis did to their own nation afterward. For an educator, Agresto was saddened to discover that in schools and on university campuses, Iraqis had burned whole libraries and destroyed classrooms, laboratories, and dormitories. This was and is irrational behavior.
What destroyed Iraq in the wake of the invasion were Islamic fanaticism and the hatred between the Sunni and Shia sects. The real problem of Iraq and the entire Middle East is Islam.
"What we are up against in the world," wrote Agresto, "is not a movement born of poverty, or even born of resentment. It's not a movement solvable by something as political as resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It's a movement born of a number of diverse, strong, and often fierce and sordid feelings and passions."
Agresto's understanding of our 231-year experiment with democracy deepened as he confronted the far more ancient inclination of Iraqis to accept the socialist society of Saddam Hussein's Baathist state in which their basic needs were met with food baskets, subsidized housing, low gasoline prices, and other "free" services and perks.
Beneath it all was a corruption of such breadth and depth that Americans cannot even fathom its daily role in the lives of Iraqis and others throughout the Middle East.
The invasion was a success. The liberation was doomed to failure by the very people whom we naively believed would embrace freedom and democracy. "The Americans who think there's a hunger for liberty in every human breast, or that a respect for the rights of all is natural and not inculcated, or that by spreading democracy we naturally spread liberty, toleration, and moderation, well, then, those Americans are wrong."
"Unless we understand that Islamic radicalism is as antagonistic to all the values the West stands for as were Fascism and Stalinism previously, our response will always be muddled and insufficient."
Iraq, when the United States draws down its forces there, will likely became a vast bloodbath as Muslims play out their worst instincts and act upon the most fundamental aspects of their so-called religion.
Perhaps the most interesting and most irritating aspect of the Iraq question is that both options-staying or leaving-can be argued with logic and facts.
We cannot undo history. That is the fact with which we are faced right now.
There are legitimate complaints regarding the astonishing failures of judgment about the invasion of Iraq, its subsequent occupation, and the continuing effort to destroy al Qaeda's role and diminish Iran's in the Middle East.
The iron law of history, however, is that if tyranny is not opposed, it expands into the vacuum of indifference that fosters it. There is still time to hope that historians will look back and see that America did the right thing.