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We Broke It

Across ideological lines, American politicians and pundits arefinally coming to a consensus on Iraq: It's the Iraqis' fault. "Wegave the Iraqis their freedom," pronounced liberal CaliforniaSenator Barbara Boxer on November 16. "What are they doing withthis freedom? They're killing each other. " The next day,conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer heartily concurred,writing: "We have given the Iraqis a republic, and they do notappear able to keep it."

It's easy to see why this line of argument appeals to both left andright. For liberals, blaming the Iraqis justifies a U.S.withdrawal: If the Iraqis are incorrigible, then there's nothingU.S. troops can do. For conservatives, it excuses the Bushadministration: If the Iraqis are incorrigible, this catastrophe istheir fault, not ours.

It's a soothing, self-justifying argument, but it's dead wrong. TheUnited States has not given Iraqis their freedom because freedomrequires order, which the United States--from the verybeginning--did not provide. And the United States has not givenIraqis a republic because a republic presupposes a state. Max Weberfamously defined the state as the institution with a monopoly onlegitimate violence, and, by that definition, there has been noIraqi state since the United States invaded more than three yearsago.

Shia and Sunni Iraqis are not turning on one another because ofancient, primordial hatreds. They're turning on one another becausewhen the state fails in its most basic task--keeping you alive--youturn to any entity that can. Imagine you're in prison. The state(embodied by the prison guards) doesn't protect you, and thehallways are controlled by racial gangs. If your survival dependson it, you'll develop a neo-Nazi or Nation of Islam identityawfully fast.

That's what is happening in Baghdad today. For most of the twentiethcentury, while Kurds mourned the state they were denied after WorldWar I, relations between Iraqi Sunnis and Shia were good andnational identity was strong. It's true that Iraq was created fromthree Ottoman provinces (centered in Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul).But, as Iraqi historian Reidar Visser has observed, those threeprovinces were not homogenous--each was ethnically diverse evenbefore Iraq was born. And, once it was, in 1921, nationalismoverwhelmed Sunni-Shia divisions. As Rutgers University's EricDavis noted in his book, Memories of State: Politics, History andCollective Identity in Modern Iraq, Sunnis and Shia not only roseup jointly against the British in 1920 (along with Iraqi Christiansand Jews), they actually prayed at one another's mosques. Theoriginal leader of Iraq's Baath Party--now synonymous with Sunnidomination-- was Shia. And, in the 1980s, 90 percent of the Iraqitroops who fought Shia Iran were--you guessed it--Shia. As Vissernotes, in all of Iraqi history, the Shia South has never launched abroad-based movement to secede.

After the disastrous Iran-Iraq war, however, the Iraqi state beganto weaken. War bankrupted the country, leaving it unable tomaintain the welfare state it had constructed during the oil-rich1970s. The Gulf war made things worse, as U. S. bombing decimatedIraqi infrastructure. And, in the 1990s, sanctions turned Iraq'sproud middle class--the historic bulwark of Iraqi nationalism--intopaupers, forced to sell their heirlooms for ration cards whileSaddam Hussein built palaces. To sustain themselves, many Iraqisturned to religiously based charitable groups. When Saddam wasoverthrown, these religious organizations were best positioned tofill the political vacuum.

But, if Iraqi nationalism was weaker on the day we invaded than ithad been two decades before, it was still quite strong. As KennethPollack has noted, when the National Democratic Institute askedIraqi focus groups in the summer of 2003 which identity suited thembest, a large majority eschewed Shia, Sunni, or Kurd in favor ofIraqi. "Iraq is not the Balkans," insisted Phebe Marr, author ofThe Modern History of Iraq, in April 2003. "There really isn'ttraditional enmity or hostility between Sunni and Shiitecommunities."

Then the United States overthrew Saddam's weak, brutal state andreplaced it with virtually no state at all. In poll after poll,Iraqis said they were happy Saddam was gone but terrified at thelack of security. A Zogby survey in August 2003 found that almost30 percent of Iraqis had friends or family killed in the war or itsanarchic aftermath. Basic services like water and electricityremained scarce as the U.S. reconstruction effort foundered becauseof corruption and lack of security. Unemployment hit 50 percent.

In this dismal, often Hobbesian environment, those Iraqis who could(the more secular middle class) fled. Among those who remained,sectarian entrepreneurs like Moqtada Al Sadr leveraged theirpreexisting networks to provide services, jobs, safety,and--increasingly--revenge. As sectarian militias offered theprotection that the state could not, sect began replacing nation asthe primary identity of many Iraqis. That shouldn't surprise us.Identity is not static, and, in war zones, as anyone who followedSarajevo in the '90s can attest, it can shift very fast. "OnceIraqis are safely ... settled in Amman," notes Iraqi-born scholarHala Fattah, "bonds of civility [between Sunni and Shia]reemerge."

It may be too late for the United States to provide the securityrequired for those bonds of civility to return to Iraq. But weshould, at least, have the decency to acknowledge that it wasAmericans (not Iraqis) who bore the responsibility underinternational law to provide security after Americans (not Iraqis)overthrew Saddam. It was we who failed and then handed Iraqipoliticians the poisoned chalice of a government that did not sitatop a state. To be sure, Iraq's elected leaders are an uninspiringbunch. But the state fell, the army was disbanded, chaos reigned,the insurgency began, reconstruction faltered, and the die was castin 2003-- before Iraqis first went to the polls.

When Donald Rumsfeld said, as looters ransacked Baghdad while U.S.troops watched, that "freedom's untidy," Democrats rightlydenounced his comments as an abdication and a disgrace. Now, morethan three years later, it is just as disgraceful for Barbara Boxerto echo them. If we need to leave; we need to leave. But let's notpretend the defeat is anyone else's but our own.

Peter Beinart