03/21/2013 08:45 am ET Updated May 21, 2013

Saddam's Revenge on America

The end justifies the means. That is how L. Paul Bremer, the Bush Administration's civilian ruler of Iraq in 2003 and 2004, now justifies the U.S. invasion of that country ten years ago.

Official Washington has had a problem with one of the country's major foreign policy initiatives of the last three decades ever since the continued presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq could not be proven. That robbed the Bush team of its original legitimizing cause for the invasion.

Mr. Bremer, a smooth-talking but ultimately incompetent man, has had plenty of reason to think long and hard about this issue. The solution he came up with? Islamic terrorism emerged as a direct consequence of the severe limitations to real political choice in the Arab world.

That is why the Bush team, he now says, believed that the introduction of democracy and the development of a modern political system were so pivotal. Simply put, they provided the best antidote to terrorism.

That argument has the very convenient side effect that the failure to find WMDs after the invasion no longer represents a failure. It was, after all, as we now learn, immaterial to the underlying rationale.

All would be fine -- were it not for what Mr. Bremer added to his convenient ex post facto rationale. According to the former American proconsul of Iraq, Arab political cultures tend to rely strictly on a black-or-white, good-or-bad model of politics. Under those circumstances, the insertion of more democracy is the only way to get people accustomed to dealing with political nuance and shades of gray.

Only when people appreciate democracy's shades of gray, Mr. Bremer argues correctly, does everybody involved in the domestic political arena understand the vital nature of political compromise.

It is precisely at this juncture where the ex post facto attempt to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq collapses: If the strong presence of black-or-white, good-or-bad, friend-or-foe thinking in a political culture is grounds for sending in U.S. troops, then few countries require an invasion more urgently than the contemporary United States.

When I heard Mr. Bremer present his case for invading Iraq to the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival in 2011, he did so with a great voice of authority, completely unaware of the unintended irony. Although an old Washington hand, the former Harvard and Yale man was evidently so culturally biased that he was not at all aware of the stunning parallel he was drawing.

As the entire world knows, in today's Washington the ability to see nuances, a prerequisite to reaching viable political compromises, is virtually a lost art. Perhaps even worse, the willingness to build bridges to the other political camp is no longer considered an asset but a political liability -- and an outright career killer in Republican circles.

While a culture apart, it is hard to describe the Republican-Democrat divide as functionally any more forgiving than the Shiite-Sunni one in today's Iraq.

The U.S. political process has become so vituperative that it has turned almost all politics into a zero-sum game. That is definitely not what the world was expecting following the Iraq invasion.

But as things stand in Washington today, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Saddam Hussein is exacting his posthumous revenge on the United States. It seems to have taken the form of transferring the dysfunction of the Iraqi political process onto the United States.

With only one minor difference: In Iraq, it is three camps -- Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds -- who are doing the relentless infighting, not trusting any of the other camps. In the case of the United States, that nastiness has been reduced to two camps, Democrats and Republicans.

The main real-life effect of the zero-sum games that shape life in Baghdad just as much as in Washington is to hollow out both nations' middle classes, while handsomely lining the pockets of the political classes and their acolytes.

The unexpected trampling of the middle class and further material elevation of the elites underscores once again just what bizarre and unlikely convergences can emerge as a result of wars.

Much as the U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually became like the medieval holy warriors they fought, so too have the countries' political systems converged in terms of their polarization.

This is far more than a matter of historic curiosity or coincidence. Great civilizations sometimes stumble over very simple things. In the past, it has often been the disappearance of sufficient water supplies that put an end to a culture that had dominated its region, or even considerable parts of the world.

In the contemporary case of the United States, it may well be the disappearance of an equally vital commodity, trust, and its first cousin, a smoothly functioning political process.

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