New ideas for rebuilding Iraq.

The best new ideas for rebuilding a nation.
April 22 2003 2:35 PM

Smarter Bombs, Smarter Democracy?

The best new ideas for rebuilding Iraq. An introduction to a Slate series.

"I don't think it has to be expensive, and I don't think it has to be lengthy," a senior administration official said of the postwar [reconstruction] plan. "Americans do everything fairly quickly."—April 21, 2003, Washington Post


Optimism is one of the United States's greatest exports. Violence, hatred, poverty, disease, and misery may be the human condition. Even so, Americans wilfully persist in believing that the world is getting better. We have faith in Progress, and Progress rarely disappoints us.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

The Iraq war confirmed this buoyant view. It was quicker, more precise, and less bloody than almost anyone expected. As Slate's Fred Kaplan and others have detailed, the Iraq war showcased the American "revolution in military affairs"—the happy marriage of new technology, new strategies, and better intelligence. Thanks to pilotless drones and souped-up guidance systems, our smarter smart bombs killed more of the right people and fewer innocents. Our better tanks demolished Iraqi armor and artillery pieces. Our flexible battle plan rapidly adjusted to and defanged the Fedayeen. And our total battlefield information lifted the fog of war. Coalition troops fought this war better than they could have 25 years ago, or even five years ago. As a result, fewer American soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and even Iraqi soldiers died.

We've made progress in war. But have we made progress in peace?

The Iraq victory leaves us with a monster cleanup. We must bring order and security to the streets and rebuild the ruined infrastructure. The Bush administration has also set itself the grander task of introducing democracy to Iraq, restoring civil society, and kick-starting the crippled economy.

This raises the question: What advances have there been—technological, strategic, intellectual—that could allow us to rebuild Iraq faster and better than we could have 25 years ago, or even five years ago?

The skeptical response, and I have heard it repeatedly, is: none. The military revolution occurred because war is driven by technology. But democracy and civil society depend on human nature, not circuitry, and human nature has not changed. There is no smart bomb for free and fair elections. Platoons of special ops economists can't construct a free market economy overnight (no, not even you, Professor Sachs).

But just because there has been no civilian revolution does not mean there has been no progress. The last 15 years have witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of African democracy, the end of civil wars in Central America and Southeast Asia, the disintegration of the Balkans, and the birth of dozens and dozens of new countries.

In fact, there are new ideas, practices, and technologies. Iraq can learn from civil society experiments and economic shock therapy in Eastern Europe, democracy fiascos in the Balkans and Cambodia, reconciliation efforts of South Africa, and radical development strategies in Indonesia and Afghanistan. (Iraq might also benefit from other, odder sources: Is it possible that "massively multiplayer online role-playing games" such as Ultima and Everquest teach any lessons about building a new society?)

Over the next several weeks, Slate will try to discover and explain the new ideas, practices, and technologies that could make Iraq's recovery faster and easier. Our intent is to make this series as interactive as possible: Some of the good ideas, after all, may be yours. If you think you do have the smart bomb for democracy, drop it on me at


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