The death of Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi has brought forth many critical obituaries, and a few glowing eulogies that focused on his pro-democracy rhetoric while ignoring his actual record as an ally of Muqtada Sadr and an enabler of Shiite Muslim death squads. Chalabi was truly the master of the long con: He continues to deceive his admirers from beyond the grave.
One point made in Chalabi's favor is that he was right to warn Americans of the folly of nation-building in Iraq. This fits in nicely with the critique of the Iraq war adopted by some of its proponents: Overthrowing Saddam Hussein was a fine idea, but we shouldn't have stuck around afterward. Better to have left Iraq in a hurry, allowing Iraqi exiles — like Chalabi — to run the place. This, in turn, is of a piece with the Jacksonian mind-set (so dubbed by foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead), which views nation-building with as much suspicion as it does big-government projects at home.
It's a nice conceit. It would be great if our troops could obliterate the enemy and then return to their garrisons. But has that strategy ever worked?
After the Civil War, there had to be Reconstruction to provide civil rights for newly freed slaves. The problem was that Reconstruction did not last long enough and did not have enough support in the North to prevent the imposition of Jim Crow laws.
After World War I, there was a similar failure. The U.S. contributed to the defeat of Germany in 1918, but then it did not stick around to aid the succeeding government. The result was that within little more than a decade, Germany's nascent democracy was overthrown by the Nazis, setting the stage for another world war.
The U.S. took the lesson seriously in 1945. Instead of leaving Europe and Asia after the end of fighting, it undertook nation-building on a grand scale. So too after the Korean War ended in 1953. The result is that Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea are among America's closest allies and among the most prosperous and stable nations in the world. It is hard to imagine that the results would have been half as good if the U.S. had quickly pulled out all of its forces and failed to provide much-needed aid through the Marshall Plan.
Fast forward to 2003. What do you suppose would have happened if, having smashed the Baathist regime in Iraq, the U.S. had simply pulled out? Is it plausible that politicians such as Chalabi and Nouri Maliki — both sectarian Shiites, however much Chalabi pretended otherwise — could have reconciled with Sunnis and created a flourishing democracy?
Such a suggestion beggars the imagination. Remember, the Iraqi army had been disbanded in the spring of 2003; and, yes, that was by order of U.S. proconsul L. Paul Bremer, but it was done at the urging of Shiite power brokers such as Chalabi who had the ear of policymakers in Washington and who argued that all remnants of Baathism must be destroyed. The only force for law and order was the U.S. military, and even it couldn't control the entire country. Without it, what would have happened?
Take a look at Syria today for an answer. The result would have been an all-out civil war. It's bad enough in Iraq now, after U.S. troops spent eight years building up a state and nurturing its armed forces. Nevertheless after America's premature departure in 2011, Iraq swiftly devolved, with sectarian Shiites like Maliki and Chalabi persecuting Sunni Muslims, and Sunnis responding by embracing Islamic State.
So, sorry Chalabi apologists, events have not vindicated his self-serving arguments. Iraq would not have been better off if the U.S. had pulled out after toppling Hussein; the situation would be even more catastrophic than it is today. The problem in Iraq has not been a surfeit of American nation-building but a deficit of it: We did not have enough plans and enough resources to control a country of 30 million people.
We keep forgetting this simple lesson. The Obama administration repeated in Libya the mistake the Bush administration made in Iraq. Today, nation-building remains a painful subject in Washington. Until we get over our aversion to it, the U.S. will be hard-pressed to safeguard its interests in a chaotic world where state failure remains the biggest breeding ground for terrorism, criminal networks, refugee flows and other transnational woes.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing writer to Opinion, is the author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.