Iraq war supporters tried to justify the invasion and occupation in many ways, but one of their reliable fallback arguments was to invoke the administration’s “freedom agenda,” of which Iraq’s political transformation was supposed to be the centerpiece. As Christian Caryl points out today (and as I have said before), this was a total failure:

On the macro level, however, matters are somewhat clearer. In the most recent Freedom House survey of democracy around the world, Iraq falls unambiguously into the “Not Free” category. (Indeed, Iraq’s rating on “civil liberties” is the same as the one Freedom House gives Iran.) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now runs a staunchly authoritarian state that, while not quite as vicious as Saddam’s old dictatorship, certainly doesn’t hesitate to crack down on its opponents. The media are largely under government control, and the government is happy to swoop down and make its opponents disappear on the pretext of a vaguely defined “war on terror.”

Democracy promotion was always the back-up justification once the main arguments for the war–WMDs and terrorism–fell apart almost as soon as the invasion happened, but it became all the more important for war supporters after that because there were no other arguments for them to use. As administration members and supporters saw it, the “freedom agenda” was supposedly what made the ongoing Iraq war worthwhile, and in their enthusiasm they linked it to Bush’s broader foreign policy goals. The Iraq war debacle and the failure of the “freedom agenda” were inextricably linked, and they marked Bush’s foreign policy record as a whole as a huge, costly disaster.

Caryl goes on to identify some of the reasons for democracy promotion’s failure in Iraq:

Finally, the third failing was Washington’s assumption that removing Saddam would assure the Americans of continued political influence for years to come [bold mine-DL]. As Carothers notes, though, “even occupying a country doesn’t give you as much influence as you think.” This error was compounded by the devastating American inability to comprehend Iraqi society in all of its complexity — or to comprehend why the occupation was so despised.

This is worth bearing in mind whenever you hear someone argue that the U.S. must pursue a certain interventionist policy in order to have political influence in the country in the future. Enduring political influence in another country is hard for any foreign government to acquire, and Americans consistently overestimate how much influence they will be able to gain by providing support to rebels or by intervening directly. This is also why we should dismiss the idea that a large, continuing military presence in Iraq today would give the U.S. meaningful influence. Continuing to have a large military presence wouldn’t counterbalance Iranian influence, which is based in part on ties with the dominant parties in Iraq, but it would simply give Iraqis an ongoing reason to resent us and it would give insurgents and terrorists targets.