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Mr. Bremer’s Shades of Grey

If a black-or-white political culture is grounds for sending in U.S. troops, then few countries require an invasion more urgently than the United States.

March 21, 2013

Paul Bremer (Credit: Helene C. Stikkel - U.S. Department of Defense)

The end justifies the means. That is how L. Paul Bremer, the Bush Administration’s civilian ruler of occupied Iraq in 2003 and 2004, justifies the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago.

Mr. Bremer is a smooth-talking, but ultimately incompetent man. He made many disastrous decisions during his tenure in Iraq, none bigger than dissolving the Iraqi army and the Baath Party. The fact that the Bush Administration could not find the continued presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — and that there was no tie to 9/11 — robbed the Bush team of its original legitimizing cause for the invasion.

Mr. Bremer has had plenty of reason to think long and hard about this problem. The linkage he came up with? Islamic terrorism had emerged as a direct consequence of the severe limitations to real political choice in the Arab world, and Iraq lacked political choice.

Sounds very smart, right? But wait a minute. That lack of political choice in Arab countries is why the Bush team, Mr. Bremer now says, believed that the introduction of democracy and the development of a modern political system were so crucial. Simply put, they provided the best antidote to terrorism and thus needed to be introduced to Iraq.

That argument has a very convenient side effect. The failure to find WMDs after the invasion no longer represents a policy failure. It was actually irrelevant, because, as we are now told, it is immaterial to the underlying decisionmaking rationale.

Black-and-white politics

All might be fine — were it not for what Mr. Bremer added to his convenient ex post facto rationale.

According to the former American proconsul of Iraq, Arab political cultures tend to rely strictly on a black-or-white, good-or-bad model of politics. Under those circumstances, the insertion of more democracy is the only way to get people accustomed to dealing with political nuance and shades of gray.

Only when people appreciate democracy’s shades of gray, Mr. Bremer argues correctly, does everybody involved in the domestic political arena understand the vital nature of political compromise.

It is precisely at this juncture where the ex post facto attempt to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq collapses: If the strong presence of black-or-white, good-or-bad, friend-or-foe thinking in a political culture is grounds for sending in U.S. troops, then few countries in the world would require an invasion more urgently than the contemporary United States.

When I heard Mr. Bremer present his case for invading Iraq to the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival in 2011, he did so with a great voice of authority. He was completely unaware of the unintended irony.

Although an old Washington hand, the former Harvard and Yale man was evidently so culturally biased that he was not at all aware of the stunning parallel he was drawing.

As unforgiving as politics in Baghdad

As the entire world knows, in today’s Washington the ability to see nuances, a prerequisite to reaching viable political compromises, is virtually a lost art. Perhaps even worse, the willingness to build bridges to the other political camp is no longer considered an asset but a political liability — and an outright career killer in Republican circles.

While a culture apart, it is hard to describe the Republican-Democrat divide as functionally any more forgiving than the Shiite-Sunni one in today’s Iraq.

The U.S. political process has become so vituperative that it has turned almost all politics into a zero-sum game. That is definitely not what the world was expecting following the Iraq invasion.

But as things stand in Washington today, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Saddam Hussein is exacting his posthumous revenge on the United States. It seems to have taken the form of transferring the dysfunction of the Iraqi political process onto the United States.

With only one minor difference: In Iraq, it is three camps — Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds — who are doing the relentless infighting, not trusting any of the other camps. In the case of the United States, that nastiness has been reduced to two camps, Democrats and Republicans.

Stuck in the middle

The main real-life effect of the zero-sum games that shape life in Baghdad just as much as in Washington is to hollow out both nations’ middle classes, while handsomely lining the pockets of the political classes and their acolytes.

The unexpected trampling of the middle class and further material elevation of the elites underscores once again just what bizarre and unlikely convergences can emerge as a result of wars.

Much as the U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually became like the medieval holy warriors they fought, so too have the countries’ political systems converged in terms of their polarization.

This is far more than a matter of historic curiosity or coincidence. Great civilizations sometimes stumble over very simple things. In the past, it has often been the disappearance of sufficient water supplies that put an end to a culture that had dominated its region, or even considerable parts of the world.

In the contemporary case of the United States, it may well be the disappearance of an equally vital commodity, trust, and its first cousin, a smoothly functioning political process.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article appeared on The Globalist in December 2011. This version, initially published on March 21, 2013, was revised by the author on June 3, 2014.


Is the political dynamic between Republicans and Democrats in Washington as dysfunctional as the relationship between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites?

It is hard to describe Washington's Republican-Democrat divide as functionally any more forgiving than the Shiite-Sunni one in today's Iraq.

The U.S. political process has become so vituperative that it has turned almost all politics into a zero-sum game.