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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

The misguided effort to install democracy in Iraq

An armored vehicle belonging to Kurdish peshmerga fighters

An armored vehicle belonging to Kurdish peshmerga fighters rushes to a bombing site as smoke rises after airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants outside of the city of Irbil in northern Iraq in this Aug. 8, 2014 file photo. The Pentagon has finally named its fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria: Operation Inherent Resolve. Credit: AP / Khalid Mohammed

Had we paid attention during our Iraq invasion of 1991, we could have saved a lot of trouble, money and lives later on. What we saw on CNN during Operation Desert Storm, when we weren't listening to Bernard Shaw report on the bombing of Baghdad from under a hotel room desk, was this: Iraqi soldiers mostly didn't risk their lives to protect a truly corrupt, despotic government. Because that would be stupid.

So many images of that war were of Iraqi soldiers practically chasing our forces, trying to surrender. We conquered a military of between 600,000 and 1 million soldiers in six weeks and the United States and our allies suffered fewer than 200 enemy-inflicted deaths.

So how much sense does it make to believe that our 12-year-old try to recruit and train Iraqi troops to be staunch "death before dishonor" protectors of Iraq will work?

Exactly none.

But when it comes to policy, we still don't get it. This week, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the chief cheerleader of our post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, said he never thought democracy could be achieved there. Then, in the same interview with The Times of London, he berated President Barack Obama for abandoning "America's historic role in promoting and defending free societies." From this we can conclude that -- um, honestly, I don't know. That trying to create and defend democracies in places with no history of freedom and liberty is as nuts as Rumsfeld?

But if Rumsfeld sounded crazy, Obama didn't do better Monday. Speaking on the Islamic State threat and Iraq at an international summit in Germany, the leader of the free world said, "We don't yet have a complete strategy." What parent, let alone a president, admits that? But worse was Obama's explanation of why we don't have a complete strategy: "It requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis as well about how recruitment takes place, how the training takes place."

I suppose there is a certain intellectual honesty in admitting you don't yet have a complete strategy for an impossible task.

To be fair, I didn't figure this out from 1991's adventure in the sand, either. When I headed to Iraq in April 2004 as a reporter embedded with the Pennsylvania National Guard, our nation's goals seemed doable: Get rid of bad guys, train good guys, put in place the democracy any sensible person would crave, scoot on home.

The guys I was with were working as military police and training Iraqi police and soldiers. When things were quiet, this training often went well. When things were dangerous, many of the Iraqi recruits disappeared. Or didn't show up, often the first indication things were going to get scary. It meant someone had told them, "You should call in sick today . . . so we don't have to kill you." Their job paid a couple hundred bucks a month, enough to train for but not to die for. They'd pick up extra money selling the weapons we issued them to the insurgents.

That's how it was then. That's how it is now. So we could send in a ground force to subdue Iraq. It would mean staying forever or eventually leaving it to chaos again. We could go hands-off now, and hope factional battles keep everyone too busy to attack us. This would be my plan.

But we cannot create a dedicated Iraqi military force willing to defend Iraq to the death.

We live in a country whose liberties and freedoms are worth dying for. We imagine that Iraqis feel the same patriotism we do. But Iraq isn't worth dying for.

So the question is not when this plan to recruit and train an Iraqi force that can stand alone will work. The question is how many failed attempts it will take before our leaders see it won't work. Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.