The End of a Bad Idea

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It challenges the imagination to believe that anything good could come out of an awful month in Iraq. But amid the rubble of Fallujah and the gruesome images from the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, a bad idea has died. That is something.

The idea was neo-imperialism. In the past few years it has become fashionable in the U.S. to think that failed states could be reformed by the imposition from the outside of order and the trappings of democracy, as if Americans could pick up the mantle of empire laid down by European powers. The dream of the neo-imperialists was idealistic; they imagined that after U.S. soldiers had secured Iraq, the invisible infrastructure of the modern state—such as independent judges, honest civil servants and an efficient tax collection—would gradually take shape under a benign American tutelage until, one day, a beacon of democracy in the Middle East was lit.

Iraq may yet become such a democracy; hope springs eternal. But if that happy consummation should come to pass, it is likely to have less to do with the ideas of neo-imperialists than with the emergence of an authentic Iraqi nationalism forged in opposition to the occupation. Such an opposition is precisely what was created in Iraq under the British League of Nations mandate in the 1920s and '30s, though few policymakers seem to have bothered to study the mandate's lessons. Toby Dodge of Britain's Warwick University—and author of Inventing Iraq, a superb recent book on the mandate—points out the ways in which coalition authorities today are making the same mistakes as the British did 80 years ago. Now as then, the occupying powers are shuffling from one scheme for self-rule to another; now as then, they change their mind about which local Iraqi politicians are in favor. Dodge says modern British and American officials have shown a "staggering level of misconception" about Iraq's history. Had they done their homework on the country, they might have understood why they have come to be so resented there.

Any occupation is traumatic. Perhaps the most poignant observation on Iraq in the past year was made by the Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations representative in Baghdad, shortly before he was killed in a bombing last August. "Who would like to see their country occupied?" Vieira de Mello said to an interviewer. "I would not like to see foreign tanks in Copacabana." Time after time, the humiliation of occupation outweighs any good intentions that an imperial power may have. (Imperial powers always insist their true mission is a civilizing one, as if they aimed to do no more than bring afternoon tea or the metric system to those in less fortunate lands.) Stripped of all its justifications, imperialism means rule by someone else. In the 21st century, it is implausible to expect an occupied people will accept such a fate happily.

But, as we have learned recently, there is another reason why imperialism carries the seeds of its own failure. Grand designs to remake nations are dreamed up in the groves of academe and the corridors of power. They are implemented, however, by young men (and women, too, nowadays) who are far from home, bored, sometimes ill-educated and often frightened. If you are a high-minded imperialist, sooner or later—whether in a village in Kenya, a Casbah in Algiers, or a jail in Baghdad—your young soldiers will get you into trouble. They will do something so foolish or impetuous or horrible that all your good work will be forgotten, and you—and they—will be reviled for it. "In Burma," George Orwell once wrote, "I was constantly struck by the fact that the common soldiers were the best-hated section of the white community, and judged simply by their behavior, they certainly deserved to be."

Americans do not like the idea that their soldiers may be hated, believing—correctly—that U.S. military might has helped liberate millions of innocents. But gratitude for such generosity is often short-lived. People want to control their own fate. Of course, it makes sense for a nation like Iraq, emerging from a dictatorship, to seek help from others. Generous people—and none are more generous than Americans—will respond in kind. But the idea that, unasked, Americans or anyone else can go into a foreign land, turn it upside down, stick around, and then be thanked for their trouble, was far-fetched at the time of the League of Nations. Today, it is simply ridiculous.