Michael Ignatieff: America must accept that it cannot reshape the world

The disasters of the past year have taught all Iraqis a lesson in the necessity of prudence and restraint
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The Independent Online

The new interim government of Iraq, which took power yesterday, is struggling to convince Iraqis that it serves them, rather than the Americans. As the Iraqi government acquires legitimacy, the hateful resistance - which has killed many more Iraqis than Americans - will lose its standing. If the interim government, together with the UN mission, can guide the country toward a constitutional convention in 2005 and free elections by 2006, Iraq will become what Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani says it should be: a country ruled by the will of the people.

The modish cynics who take failure in Iraq for granted underestimate the people of Iraq. The country is not a failed state, the UN adviser Lakhdar Brahimi reminds us, but a powerful nation with a trained middle class and huge potential oil wealth. Even the disasters of the past year have taught all Iraqis a harrowing lesson in the necessity of prudence and restraint. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds now have objective reasons, even if they distrust one another, to avoid the descent into civil war - and there now exists at least a path to elections that may lure the gunmen into politics.

Iraqis may not have full sovereignty yet, but America needs to understand that Iraqis, not Americans, are already sovereign over events there.

America would be a better nation-builder if it acknowledged this, but its history does not encourage humility. During the D-Day celebrations, the old newsreel footage of dusty GIs riding into Rome and Paris in 1944 burnished America's incorrigible mythology of its own omnipotence. In Iraq, even the locals succumbed to it, expecting that the world's most powerful country must be able to get water, electricity and security running in no time. It was a rude surprise to discover how chaotic, incompetent and downright violent the godlike liberators turned out to be. America had the Bradleys and the Abrams, but it knew next to nothing about Iraq, and soon ignorance - of the language, tribal alliances and family and clan networks - left US soldiers ambushed and outwitted in the deadly alleyways of Fallujah and Najaf.

Ordinary American ignorance was compounded by the administration's arrogance. General George Marshall began planning the postwar occupation of Germany two years before D-Day. This administration was fumbling for a plan two months before the invasion. Who can read Bob Woodward's 'Plan of Attack' and not find his jaw dropping at the fact that, from the very beginning in late 2001, none of the civilian leadership, not Rice, not Powell, not Tenet, not the President, asked where the plan for the occupation phase was? Who can't feel that US captains, majors and lieutenants were betrayed by the Beltway wars between State and Defence? Who can't feel rage that victorious armies stood by and watched for a month while Iraq was looted bare? Someone like me, who supported the war on human rights grounds, has nowhere to hide: we didn't suppose the administration was particularly nice, but we did assume it would be competent. There isn't much excuse for its incompetence, but equally, there isn't much excuse for our naïveté either.

Still, the US did one thing well in Iraq, and nobody else could have done it - it overthrew a dictator. Everything else was badly done, and some of what was done - Abu Ghraib - was a moral disgrace and a strategic catastrophe.

The US has only one remaining task in Iraq: to prevent civil war and the dismemberment of the country. Sending in more troops will only turn them into targets and delay the day when Iraqis are required to defend themselves. The troops should be there to train enough Iraqis loyal to the national government to prevent Kurds from turning on Sunnis, or Shiites from turning against both. America cannot defend Iraq from its demons of division: it can only help Iraqis to do so. When there is a freely elected government, the US should return home. January, 2006 is the date for return set by the UN resolution. By then, the oil should be flowing, the coffers of the Iraqi state should be filling up, and what Iraq will do with the money will be up to the Iraqis, not us. America may not be able to shape Iraq for the better, but it cannot abdicate its responsibility to prevent the worst. Intervention amounted to a promise. The promise - of eventual peace and order - needs to be kept.

The signal illusion from which America has to awake in Iraq, and everywhere else, is that it serves God's providence or (for those with more secular beliefs) that it is the engine of history. In Iraq, America is not the maker of history, but its plaything. In the region at large, America is not the hegemon, but the hesitant shaper of forces it barely understands. In the Middle East, it stands by, apparently helpless, as Israelis create more facts on the ground, and Palestinians create more suicide bombers. This shows that the world does not exist to be moulded to American wishes.

The US cannot continue to bear this burden of destiny. For believing that it is Providence's chosen instrument makes the country overestimate its power; it encourages it to lie to itself about its mistakes; and it makes it harder to live with the painful truth that history does not always - or, even, very often - obey the magnificent but dangerous illusions of American will.

c 2004 The New York Times Magazine

The writer's latest book is 'Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror'