By Blake Hounshell
Posted April 2008
General Petraeus has scored some victories. But the United States is still far closer to having created another failed state than a functioning democracy.
When Gen. David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill this week, he will have much to brag about. Since the surge was first announced in January 2007, attacks on coalition forces in Iraq have decreased by at least 60 percent. Iraqi civilian casualties are down by a comparable amount.
These impressive gains have stalled in recent months, as the war’s critics have been quick to point out. Violence is ticking back up, they note, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s recent attempt to regain a footing in Basra suggests that the Iraqi military is not ready for prime time. Truces by Sunni and Shiite militias, not more U.S. troops or new tactics, largely explain the decline in attacks, they say. The few claims of political progress are strained at best.
Such critiques miss the larger point. Surge or no surge, it’s extremely doubtful the U.S. occupation can ultimately produce a successful Iraq—a stable, unitary, democratizing state at peace with its neighbors. The surge is merely the most preliminary precursor to this intended outcome, and even Petraeus admits that it could all come undone overnight. For that matter, Iraq is just one part of a larger strategic picture, as former CENTCOM commander Adm. William J. Fallon tried to impress upon the Bush administration before he resigned. A myopic, irrational focus on Iraq has impaired the United States from making progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict, managing the rise of China, and everything in between. In short, the Iraq war is long past being worth the $120 billion a year being spent to wage it—an amount that exceeds Iraq’s entire annual economic output.
This is hardly the fault of Petraeus, a brilliant general tasked with a nearly impossible mission. Building a decent political order in Iraq has always been something of a fantasy. Even if Petraeus somehow succeeds in bringing violence down to a manageable level, it may be generations before Iraq becomes the “dramatic and inspiring example of freedom” in the Middle East that President Bush has repeatedly invoked. Instead, it will most likely evolve into a country plagued by instability, ethnosectarian violence, weak institutions, and unreliable oil production—if we’re lucky. Few Americans would support spending $12 billion a month in Iraq if they understood that they were buying, at best, another Nigeria, and at worst, Somalia with oil.
Supporters of the Iraq war, however, should know better. Many of them seem to have forgotten the work of scholars like NYU political scientist Adam Przeworski, who has written extensively about the relationship between wealth and democracy. Above a per capita income of $6,055, Przeworski finds, “democracies last forever.” But below that threshold, democracies are more fragile. Iraq’s GDP per capita today is a paltry $3,600, but even that low figure is misleading. When a country depends so heavily on oil revenues, its GDP per capita says little about its real level of development (Equatorial Guinea, technically speaking, is the 12th-richest country in the world). Przeworski’s research therefore excludes major oil-producers, which have their own set of problems.
In fact, oil tells us nearly everything we need to know about Iraq’s grim future. The United States is betting billions that Iraq—which has traditionally depended on oil exports for 95 percent of its foreign-exchange earnings—will escape the curse of what a Venezuelan oil minister once called “the devil’s excrement.” Academic studies have shown repeatedly that poor countries with oil tend to be poorer, more repressive, and more prone to internal conflict than those without it. In an influential 1995 paper, economists Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner found that resource extraction is deadly for economic development. Others, notably UCLA political scientist Michael Ross, have added insights about how oil impedes democratization and increases the likelihood of civil war. Oil has helped make Iraq the world’s third-most corrupt state, just above Somalia and Burma. Such findings are no guarantee that Iraq is destined to fail. But the United States has made a tremendous sacrifice in blood and treasure because President Bush is trying to prove, against all odds, that it won’t.
The arguments for staying in Iraq are drearily familiar. There will be a “blood bath” if the United States leaves. Withdrawing will only “embolden” al Qaeda. Iraq’s oil will be taken off the market. Iran will seize control of the country. These risks are not only overblown, they are also deeply uncertain. They must be weighed against the well-known costs of sticking around—a U.S. military stretched to the breaking point, a Middle East becoming more radicalized and anti-American, continued distraction from the real fight against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the real diplomatic action in Asia, to name but a few. Most importantly, we must not forget that even a perfect surge would still have left the United States chasing an expected strategic payoff—a stable, democratic Iraq—that is extremely unlikely to be realized for decades, if at all.
It’s one thing to ask American soldiers to lay their lives on the line for freedom and democracy, or to safeguard their country from weapons of mass destruction. But who wants to be the last man to die for Nuri al-Maliki?
Blake Hounshell is web editor of ForeignPolicy.com.