The United States and Britain did not invade Iraq out of ambition to conquer its people, annex their territory or expropriate their natural resources. American and British leaders acted out of fear for the safety of their own people to topple a regime they believed to be a threat to national security. In the process, we liberated the people of Iraq from an odious tyranny.
We now have a moral obligation, which also is in our self-interest, to help rebuild Iraq and to assist the Iraqi people to create the institutions that will generate economic growth and foster democratic self-rule. It is tempting to assume that neither of these two objectives can be achieved until order is restored - and therefore to conclude that we must continue to occupy Iraq militarily until it is. Yet I believe this kind of linear thinking is misleading and dangerous and could lead us into the quagmire of a guerrilla war.
It is true that we cannot immediately pull our military out of Iraq because it would create a power vacuum and invite the Baathists and radical Jihadists to take control and emulate that which happened in Beirut and Mogadishu. However, if we attempt to impose order by military force, even under U.N. auspices, the level of violence and brutality required will inadvertently create widespread popular resistance to our presence, dehumanize our military and ignite a conflict we will be unable to contain.
Although administration critics like Sens. Joseph Biden and John McCain are correct that we need to spend "a lot more money" on reconstruction in Iraq, McCain has it backwards when he says, "We need a lot more military."
We should not frame the situation in Iraq as a win-lose combat situation because we cannot "win," and should not fight, a low-intensity counterinsurgency war against Baathist guerrillas and Islamic religious insurgents in Iraq. We must do everything possible to prevent it from happening, and that is a political and economic undertaking, not a military one. If a guerrilla war must be fought, Iraqis must fight it, and that will require more than "putting an Iraqi face" on the situation - it will require putting an Iraqi force into the field.
Efforts to rejuvenate Iraq's economy also are being hindered by the dominance of the military in the reconstruction effort, combined with the anti-market bias entrenched inside the bureaucracies of the various international aid and development organizations. This military-bureaucratic complex is turning Iraq into a militarized, central-planning exercise that looks more like Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe post-World-War II.
The conundrum is how to restore order at the same time we transform our military presence from a "Humvees on patrol" image - guarding against and fighting a guerrilla foe - to that of "shotgun behind the door," where, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently argued, our military is held in low-profile reserve with the sole purpose of strategic intervention to prevent the bad guys from taking control.
The only solution is to hand Iraq over to the Iraqis by recalling to active duty as many of the 400,000 Iraqi soldiers who are suitable and willing to help; by holding immediate local elections; and by throwing open the doors of commerce to people and firms which are willing to do business for profit and create jobs in Iraq. These actions won't decapitate the insurgency, but taken together they can starve it to death by depriving the guerrillas of the human despair and resentment that nourish them.
Local elections should be held within a matter of weeks, not months, to select local leaders. They should build upon the Iraqi tradition of "muhktars," or "chosen ones," who act like neighborhood magistrates or mayors. These local leaders then could be amalgamated quickly into working municipal councils, which in turn could elect representatives to regional governing bodies. Within a very few months, these regional governing bodies could elect representatives to a national parliament that could take over national governance and control of the military.
Likewise, we should invite Hernando de Soto and the Institute for Liberty and Democracy to work with the muhktars to get property registered, titled and valued and to establish a system of local common-law courts to handle property and civil disputes and routine criminal matters.
There is no need for DOD contractors to be running the Iraqi oil industry like a U.S. state-owned enterprise. Iraqis know how to run an oil industry; we should let them. But, we should turn over an industry of numerous private companies, not a state-owned behemoth. We should create real private oil-industry enterprises, owned as joint stock companies by the Iraqi people, complete with Iraqi management and boards of directors. Each new private oil company would issue an equal number of shares of stock to every Iraqi citizen, which in one fell swoop would create a community of financial interests across tribal, regional, ethnic and religious divides, and therefore provide a powerful uniting force.
Banking is another area where Soviet-style central planning must be abandoned. Rather than establishing an international banking cartel and reopening the two state-owned banks, the Coalition Provisional Authority should implement a rudimentary system to grant licenses to private banks wishing to do business in Iraq, especially those willing to lend to small- and medium-sized businesses.
These are just a few of the steps we can take to empower the Iraqi people. Above all, we must send a signal that the United States stands ready to invest in a 21st-century effort, as we did with the Marshall Plan after World War II, to generate economic growth and democratic self-rule in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the Arab and Muslim world.