Summary: The Iraqi people were generally very happy to see the Americans roll into their country after nearly 25 years of struggles in the Iran/Iraq War, Desert Storm, and wholesale killings by the Saddam Hussein regime. But while the Iraqis were expecting the strong Americans to stop all the looting and restore the electrical power grid, the Americans were thinking we were there to make it safe enough for the Iraqis to take care of themselves. If one has never experienced democracy, he may not know how to handle it. Mistakes were made on both sides, and others will likely be made. But together we can bring liberty and a strong economy to Iraq.
When the Americans rolled into Baghdad in 2003, despite the bombings that had killed and wounded several Iraqis who lived close to such things as anti-aircraft guns and Saddam hideouts, the Iraqis were generally euphoric to see them. For the past 25 years, their brutal dictator had emaciated their collective lives by dragging them from one crisis to another:
--The Iran/Iraq war, from 1980-1988
--The occupation of Kuwait, and the resulting Operation Desert Storm in 1991
--The wholesale slaughter of thousands of Shia’ in the southern part of the country following an uprising after Desert Storm
--The brutal destruction of thousands of Kurds in the north from time to time
--United Nations sanctions as a result of Saddam’s lust for power
Based on Iraqi expectations, American tanks were a welcome sight. But based on those same expectations, they were not a welcome sight for long. Iraqis expected, above all, that the Americans would do two things: (1) protect their streets from looting and chaos, and (2) quickly restore the electrical power grid that had been destroyed by Ba’athist mismanagement during the bombings.
When, on practically the same day Saddam’s statue tumbled to the dust in Baghdad, wide scale looting and destruction began, the Iraqis wondered why the mighty Americans didn’t squash it. After all, Saddam would have put a quick end to it, and the Americans were infinitely more powerful than he. As time went on and the electricity situation didn’t get any better, attitudes of many Iraqis soured even worse, some complaining that this was worse than being under Saddam Hussein.
When President Bush sent L Paul Bremer to begin the reconstruction effort, much emphasis was placed on helping the Iraqis to take care of themselves. The Americans would provide consultation on helping to restore the power grid, and they would provide a backup security force for the police who, it was expected, would control the streets. Not taking into account the docility engrained in the Iraqi people as a result of decades of despotism pressing down on them, America assumed that the Iraqis would immediately know what to do with their new-found freedom. And they were frustrated when Iraqis didn't seem to want to take control of their own destiny.
It is an axiom that people want to be free. It is not similarly axiomatic that they will know what to do with that freedom. That Americans take for granted such freedoms became blinders of sorts in the formation of our expectations of the Iraqi people.
Several mistakes were made. Some continue to be made. But the precarious experiment in freedom here, once feared by some and hoped by others to be fatal, is now improving in leaps and bounds. The disconnect between American and Iraqi expectations is narrowing all the time as we get to know each others’ cultures and ways of thinking. And the further in the past the despotisms of Saddam and his Ba’ath party henchmen become, the easier it will become for Americans to teach the ways of entrepreneurship, oraganization, and responsible decision making and for the Iraqis to implement those teachings.