The neo-cons have a few things right. We should be robustly engaged in the world. We should promote our better values in nations lacking our freedoms. And we should not be afraid to use military strength when doing so will likely prevent more tragedies that it will cause.

But the neo-cons are blinded by the brightness of their own ideology. And, because of that, Iraq is a far greater mess than it could have been otherwise.

In my mind, our biggest philosophical mistake in Iraq was believing ourselves to be liberators. This was not France in 1944. The Iraqis were not a conquered people yearning to throw out their foreign masters. As brutal and evil as Saddam Hussein was, he was still an Iraqi leading a government of Iraqis.

To claim our invasion was a “liberation� was to believe that the Iraqi people were natural, freedom-loving folk who would eagerly embrace democracy if not for the oppressiveness of Saddam. We ignored the possibility that Iraq was a dictatorship not because Saddam was so awfully powerful but because authoritarianism was the state in which Iraqis were most comfortable.

I do not mean to belittle the Iraqi people or suggest they are incapable of democracy. But we were wrong to believe that all we had to do was plant the democracy seed and freedom would flourish. Many, many Iraqis had no desire (and continue to have no desire) to live in a democracy. They want a Muslim theocracy. They want a Baathist dictatorship. They want authoritarianism and they’re fighting very hard to achieve it.

Our war philosophy failed to take into account how hard certain Iraqi’s would resist democracy. Because of neoconservative thought, we wrongly believed that the natural state of modern man is democracy. Democracy is and always has been a beautiful aberration in human nature. It is, as far as I’m concerned, the best societal system ever created. But it is not natural. It is learned. And the lessons are often harsh.

In 1945, we occupied Japan and turned that formerly authoritarian nation into a Democracy. But never once did we call ourselves liberators. We were occupiers, we knew it and we wielded a kind of control that today’s Americans would likely never accept. But it worked and Japan has been our ally ever since.

I’m not saying we would have succeeded in Iraq had we treated this occupation the same way we treated the one in Japan. After all, the two cultures are quite different and we live in a different era. But I am saying that, once we decided that the democratization of Iraq was vital to our national security, we should have approached it with the cold-eyed realism we used in Japan rather than the flowers-and-candy idealism of the neo-cons.

I do not believe we needed to go into Iraq. But now we have no choice but to stay. Iraq may not have been a top-tier threat to us or to global stability in 2003, but it is now. How do we fix the situation after going so far off track? I don’t know. But we can start by expunging neo-con idealism from our rhetoric and our war philosophy. It’s time for some calculated realism.

Politics What We Need in Iraq is Some Calculated Realism