We went to Iraq to overthrow a police state. Through a combination of stubbornness, naivete and noble intentions, we've replaced it with another police state - more violent, more corrupt and less accountable.
As an Army officer remarked to me, Saddam's starting to look good.
Our greatest setback in Iraq may be that country's undoing: It has proven impossible to develop an honest, nonpartisan police establishment anywhere in the country's Arab provinces. The police aren't feared by criminals, but by law-abiding citizens.
The secret police are back, in the form of death squads. And the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki looks perfectly happy with the situation.
American advisers risk their lives in the struggle to build Iraqi police units committed to doing their duty. We've equipped them, trained them and led from the front.
In gratitude, Iraq's police have ambushed our troops, fielded death squads less restrained than those under Saddam, stolen everything they could steal in preparation for a future civil war - and, apparently, funneled U.S.-provided arms to militias, insurgents and terrorists.
Our efforts to develop good cops have failed (garbage in, garbage out). We need to stop wasting our efforts. Shielded by government ministers and parliamentarians, the police are so out of control that there's no longer any hope of weeding out the bad guys. Instead, the bad guys are weeding out the good guys: Honest cops get killed. By other cops.
The situation's desperate. We need to revamp our strategy (to the extent that we have one). For all its shortcomings, the Iraqi army has been a far greater success than the police - whether we're speaking of cops on the beat or paramilitary commandos.
It's time to abandon the cops. Let the anti-American elements in the Maliki government have them. Don't continue to strengthen our enemies. Concentrate on developing and expanding the army.
Why? Here's where the truth gets still uglier. As dearly as we believe in democracy, Iraq's Arabs are proving that they're incapable of the political, social and moral maturity necessary to run an elected government.
Casting ballots alone doesn't make a democracy. The government has to function. And to protect all of its citizens.
In the coming months, we may find that the only hope of restoring order is a military government. It sounds repellent, but a U.S.-backed coup may be the only alternative to endless anarchy.
Arabs still can't govern themselves democratically. That's the appalling lesson of our Iraqi experiment. A military regime might be capable of establishing order and protecting the common people.
We've got to prepare the national military to take on the local police. And the insurgents. And the militias. And the foreign terrorists.
Yes, the Iraqi army may also disappoint us in the end. Increasingly, though, it looks like the last hope. The national government is a dysfunctional collection of religious and ethnic mafias. Ministers serve only their own armed factions. Maliki has outed himself as a puppet of Muqtada al-Sadr. (President Bush may love old Nouri, but Nouri don't love him back.)
The Kurds are quietly, efficiently building a model state in the north. But the Arabs are building nothing beyond militias and death squads.
This really isn't our failure. The failure is on the part of the Iraqis. They had this one great chance - bought with American and allied blood - to build a rule-of-law democracy in the Arab world. They appear determined to throw that chance away, preferring to wallow in old hatreds, vengeance, corruption and the tyranny of fear.
It's ironic that, having gone to Iraq to jump-start democracy in the region, we may end up backing a military coup to save the battered country. We're not there yet (and the thought is anathema in Washington - reality usually is). But we'd better hedge our bets. The only, faint chance we have to protect the average Iraqi is to expand the Iraqi army and promote a national ethos within its ranks.
We have only two rational choices. The first is to read the government the riot act, then give democracy one more year. If Iraq's leaders refuse to lead honorably and effectively - and get the police and militias under control - we should abandon Iraq (except for Kurdistan) by autumn 2007. The other option is to start preparing the best Iraqi military leaders to take charge of their country.
The alternative to a military government looks like continued mayhem - an endless slaughter of the innocents - along with more American casualties as we protect our enemies.
A year ago, one of our legislators asked for my assessment of Iraq's future. I told him that, while the various armed factions couldn't defeat us, the culture of corruption was the greatest threat to a future Iraqi government. That prediction has come to pass.
The state of the Iraqi police confirms it. They're not lawmen. They're murderers wearing uniforms we paid for. Our embedded advisers have to fear for their lives. Most are discouraged by Iraqi duplicity and partisanship. Our troops despise Iraq's police.
Again, we didn't destroy Iraq. We just gave Sunni and Shia Arabs a chance to destroy it. And they grabbed it.
What has become of our dreams for democracy when today's Iraqi police are worse than Saddam's and the most humane possibility for the country is a military government? The answer is that Arab civilization has revealed itself as a catastrophic failure.
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