What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building

What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building

What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building

What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building


What do we owe Iraq?

America is up to its neck in nation building--but the public debate, focused on getting the troops home, devotes little attention to why we are building a new Iraqi nation, what success would look like, or what principles should guide us. What We Owe Iraq sets out to shift the terms of the debate, acknowledging that we are nation building to protect ourselves while demanding that we put the interests of the people being governed--whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, or elsewhere--ahead of our own when we exercise power over them.

Noah Feldman argues that to prevent nation building from turning into a paternalistic, colonialist charade, we urgently need a new, humbler approach. Nation builders should focus on providing security, without arrogantly claiming any special expertise in how successful nation-states should be made. Drawing on his personal experiences in Iraq as a constitutional adviser, Feldman offers enduring insights into the power dynamics between the American occupiers and the Iraqis, and tackles issues such as Iraqi elections, the prospect of successful democratization, and the way home.

Elections do not end the occupier's responsibility. Unless asked to leave, we must resist the temptation of a military pullout before a legitimately elected government can maintain order and govern effectively. But elections that create a legitimate democracy are also the only way a nation builder can put itself out of business and--eventually--send its troops home.

Feldman's new afterword brings the Iraq story up-to-date since the book's original publication in 2004, and asks whether the United States has acted ethically in pushing the political process in Iraq while failing to control the security situation; it also revisits the question of when, and how, to withdraw.


Late one night in may 2003, I was in a military transport plane somewhere over the Mediterranean, on my way to a stint as constitutional adviser to the American occupation authorities in Iraq. in the dozen or so rows of seats that had been jerryrigged in the open belly of the aircraft, most of the passengers—all in various aspects of the advising business—were dozing, shivering slightly for the last time before we hit the Baghdad heat. the adrenaline pumping through me, I was rereading the best modern book on the Iraqi Shiʿa and hastily trying to teach myself some Iraqi colloquial dialect.

Pausing to take in the moment, I glanced around at my new colleagues. Those who were awake were reading intently. When I saw what they were reading, though, a chill crept over me, too. Not one seemed to need a refresher on Iraq or the Gulf region. Without exception, they were reading new books on the American occupation and reconstruction of Germany and Japan.

My initial shock at my colleagues' reading matter was almost purely situational. Although it is possible to draw some more than superficial analogies between Baʿthism and National Socialism, Iraq was nothing like postwar Germany and Japan. Economic, political, social, and cultural conditions in Iraq after the U.S. invasion were distinct from any occupation situation that anyone had ever encountered, and if there was to be any hope of handling the situation effectively, the first step was surely to immerse oneself in what information was available about the country. the task felt classically orientalist, in the sense of gathering knowledge in order to exert . . .

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