On this day (May 1) ten years ago President George W. Bush landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and gave perhaps the largest hostage to fortune ever handed over by an American politician. Beneath a huge sign that read “Mission Accomplished,” Bush announced that, “In the Battle of Iraq the United States and its allies have prevailed.”

Hmm, no, the US and its’ allies hadn’t prevailed. The War to Overthrow Saddam had succeeded, but the Battle of Iraq hadn’t really begun.

Of all the ten year anniversaries associated with the first phase of the Iraq War, this is the one on which to consider whether, with less arrogance and better planning, the war might have succeeded.

As Syria disintegrates and North Korea adds an unneeded level of nuclear fear to east Asian life the questions of intervention are still with us. The reluctance to answer them and then act is wholly down to an inability to answer them honestly – including the most critical question: if you intervene – how do you prepare for the day after victory?

Here’s a small insight from ten years ago.

On April 11, 2003, Saddam’s regime collapsed in the northern city of Mosul without a fight. In the night it effectively disappeared. Baghdad had fallen several days earlier. In Mosul, the army evaporated. Soldiers literally walked out of their uniforms. Weeks later you could still see boots and military kit along the side of the road.

In the city there was looting, particularly at a UN food depot and the Iraqi National Bank. The historic record of the day, in images and the sounds I recorded, make that looting seem like the dominant response to Mosul’s self-liberation.

But the overwhelming truth – something no camera or sound recordist could capture – is that most people were not capable of looting. They were walking around in a state of shock. Everywhere you looked were somnambulants wandering in parks and up on the grassed over walls of ancient Nineveh. A whole city awoken from a collective, decades’ long nightmare into bright, spring sunshine.

When you come out of a nightmare, reality often seems a continuation of the dream. There is a pervasive sense of disbelief. You have to shake your head very hard to make sure that yes, you are in fact awake, and the world around you is real.

On one residential street, a small crowd gathered around my friend, Ahmad Shawkat, a dissident who had been living in internal exile in Erbil, in the Kurdish safe area, an hour’s drive away. Even his presence, after years of exile, couldn’t completely re-assure the men, his former neighbors, that the regime was gone. These old friends, many of them university professors, simply couldn’t believe it. Saddam was too clever, this was all a trick. He would be back. The implication was: those who celebrated will be dragged away by the Mukhabarat, the secret police.

Ahmad turned to me and said, “This is the infection of ‘dictatorism.'” But as the hours passed and the looting and somnambulism continued, Ahmad said, “I had no idea my people would behave so strangely.”

In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Fear of the state security apparatus had become a fundamental part of Iraqi’s lives over 30 years. As the next hours and days unfolded, the immediate reality of liberation worked its way around the city along with a new fear: the absence of security.

I’m not talking about the sense of security that the police will come if your house is burgled and that should the criminal be arrested there is a reasonable chance he will be tried and convicted of the crime. I’m talking about something much deeper, a going about daily life without having to even think about the most basic existential questions.

If nothing else, totalitarian states deliver this. The regime provides absolute parameters on what is permissible. It becomes a cocoon. People exist within that framework. If they question it, they disappear.

What the Bush Administration’s overthrow of Saddam did was take those existential certainties away overnight and put nothing in their place.

That President Bush and his advisers’ planning for the post-war period was negligible was known beforehand. In an article in the New York Times a week before the war began, columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who was very pro-war, wrote about the President, “He and his team are the only people who would ever have conceived this project, but they may be the worst people to implement it. The only place they’ve been bold is in their military preparations “

But even if the Administration had deployed enough troops to provide the mundane kind of security necessary to prevent anarchy in the post-war period, it could never have got to grips with this more abstract notion of being secure, not just in your person, but in your soul. The bureaucratic kingpins who planned the war were not capable of that kind of thinking.

They never thought to ask, Why did totalitarianism’s collapse in the Soviet Union not lead to people embracing modern democracy but instead lead to kleptocracy and then a re-embrace of nationalist authoritarianism? Why did the end of the Soviet Empire bring about Yugoslavia’s violent break-up over 19th century concepts of national identity accompanied by a series of civil wars fought with medieval savagery augmented by 20th century weapons?

Why would the disappearance of the Saddam regime not have a similar negative effect on those who had been forced to live under it? Then they should have asked the obvious question: How do we prevent a similar bad outcome?

It is hard to imagine unless you have lived under totalitarianism or been present when it collapsed but freedom means fear. Many people in a society making the transition from dictatorship would prefer the old certainty, even if it means not being “free.” Those, like my friend Ahmad, who argue that it is worth taking the risk to live with freedom’s uncertainty face violence. He was murdered five months after the regime collapsed.

Yet I am certain that in those months between the regime’s collapse and my friend’s death there was the possibility of success in Iraq. The people wanted order in the street, but they also wanted unthinking security in their souls. If the US had delivered the latter, there would have been a better outcome. But giving Iraqis a feeling of inner security required more than troops and bureaucratic thinking, it required planning based on an understanding of the psychology of societies that endure totalitarianism – or prolonged periods of violent instability.

This is an important lesson to learn. In the coming years there are many societies that will be jostled out of their nightmares – suddenly or after years of violence. The Ba’ath regime of Basher Assad will fall in Syria, even North Korea will someday emerge from the shadow of the Kims.

When these things happen, the US and the whole of the international community, need to have thought through how best to ease people past the inevitable fear that comes from waking up from the nightmare of certainty to the uncertain reality of freedom.






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