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TRB from Washington.

Nothing makes me more nervous about the future of Iraq than hearing Bush officials declare that its people are free. Donald Rumsfeld said so six times in his post-looting “freedom’s untidy” press conference on April 11. A few days later, President Bush told a crowd in St. Louis that, “Thanks to the courage and might of our military, the Iraqi people are now free.”

No, they’re not. The president and the defense secretary are playing a semantic game. Just because the Iraqi people are free from Saddam Hussein doesn’t mean they’re free. Freedom, after all, is not just the absence of centralized dictatorship. If it were, the Somali people would have been free in 1991, when they overthrew the tyrant Mohammed Siad Barre and saw anarchy and starvation follow in his wake. Political theory 101 says that, while people might be theoretically free in the absence of an effective sovereign, that freedom has little real meaning. And, today in Iraq, there is still no effective sovereign—there is only the strongest guy on your particular block. If he’s an American soldier, you may indeed enjoy the beginnings of freedom. But, given how thinly American forces are stretched, most blocks don’t have a GI; they have a cleric with a gun. And many of those clerics have about as much respect for individual liberty as Mullah Omar.

Why does it matter that Bush and Rumsfeld are overstating what the United States has thus far achieved? Because in the coming months there will be enormous pressure to declare political victory and get out—before the foundations for real Iraqi freedom have been established. If the president says that, with a new, decent government, Iraqis can become free, he implicitly tells Americans that our work there is only beginning. If he says Iraqis are already free, he implicitly tells Americans that our work there is done.

The pressure to get out quickly will stem from the peculiar configuration of the post-Saddam debate in Washington. On one side, the State Department wants an extended American presence because it prizes unity and stability and fears that too hasty a U.S. exit could imperil both. Supporting Foggy Bottom are establishment liberals like The New York Times. But the problem for these Council on Foreign Relations-style internationalists, inside and outside the Bush administration, is that they generally opposed the war, which has left their influence at an all-time low. What’s more, the people they’d like to build a better Iraq—State Department bureaucrats, U.N. bureaucrats, and Iraqis not named Ahmed Chalabi—haven’t gotten the job. The people who have, such as retired General Jay Garner, will probably take their instructions from the Pentagon.

Pentagon civilians like Paul Wolfowitz should be the greatest proponents of U.S. nation-building in Iraq, given that it’s the only chance to realize their vision of a model democracy in the Middle East. But they share the Pentagon with an officer corps that loathes nation-building as destructive to military morale. Worse, Rumsfeld—who has almost single-handedly neutered the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan— generally agrees with the military brass on this count. The resulting irony is that, while the Pentagon has grander ambitions for post-Saddam Iraq than the State Department, it is prepared to commit fewer resources to its reconstruction. When Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki suggested in March that post-Saddam peacekeeping might require several hundred thousand troops, Wolfowitz said his estimate was “way too high.” And officials at Garner’s Pentagon-allied Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance recently told The Washington Post that their work would take “months, not years.”

The best hope for a democratic Iraq is if administration hawks such as Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, aided by their conservative allies in the press, realize that, without a serious commitment to nation-building—meaning a large, long-term U.S. troop commitment and lots of money for reconstruction—they can kiss their dreams of Arab democracy goodbye. Unfortunately, such a commitment is probably not in the Bush administration’s political self-interest. First of all, study after study has found that building democracy in Iraq could cost $15 billion to $20 billion per year. As we have learned with homeland security (see Jonathan Chait, “The 9/10 President,” March 10), the Bush tax cuts make large, new expenditures extremely difficult. Already, White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels has declared that Iraq’s reconstruction “will not require sustained aid.” Will conservatives demand large-scale reconstruction spending even if it undermines the case for Bush’s latest tax cuts? Don’t bet on it.

Secondly, emphasizing nation-building means emphasizing what needs to be done in Iraq rather than what has already been achieved. And conservatives, by and large, are in no mood to do that. They suspect that antiwar, anti-Bush types are stressing the negative to deny the president his rightful “I told you so” moment. Those suspicions aren’t baseless. But they lead conservatives to consistently see the glass as half full, which drastically diminishes the pressure on the Bush administration to commit to postwar reconstruction. In the case of Afghanistan, for instance, liberals have been saying for over a year that, outside Kabul, the country is in miserable shape. But Pollyannaish conservatives generally ignore the problem, leaving the Bush administration politically free to ignore it as well.

The third reason the pressure to get out of Iraq will be so intense is that we can always justify a cut-and-run by claiming it’s what the Iraqis themselves want. Even on the right, the language of anti-imperialism carries weight. But the truth is that, because Iraqis are still not free, we don’t yet know what they want. Yes, the clerics filling the post-Saddam void seem to want the United States gone. But conservatives, of all people, should know that self- appointed strongmen don’t represent the people just because they say they do. (Especially when many of those strongmen are themselves being aided by a foreign power: Iran.) Do the Iraqis want a liberal government or a fundamentalist one? We’ll never know unless we establish liberal institutions through which Iraqis can freely express themselves. And we have learned in the last week that such institutions have little hope unless America makes itself the sovereign on every block in Iraq and doesn’t relinquish its authority until something decent and sustainable has been built.

The alternative is for the United States to leave quickly and cheaply and pretend that we have freed Iraqis to determine their own fate. But, if the mullahs seize power, the Iraqi people won’t be free to determine anything. Being ruled by one of your countrymen doesn’t make you free. The Bush administration understood this pretty well when it argued for war against a guy named Saddam Hussein.

This article originally ran in the March 5, 2003 issue of the magazine.