Democracy in Iraq: The American Military’s Kobayashi Maru


In the Star Trek movies and books, cadets at Starfleet academy take the Kobayashi Maru test. The test is a simulation where the cadet captains a ship tasked with the rescue of a stranded ship’s crew, the Kobayashi Maru. Before the cadet can carry out the rescue they are beset with several Klingon war birds.  No course of action the cadet chooses can save the crew of the stranded ship. Almost inevitably, the simulation ends in the destruction of the cadet’s ship and the death of all aboard as well as the crew of the Kobayashi Maru. The test is designed to see if the cadets can maintain their composure while in command of the doomed rescue mission, intended to teach a cadet how to deal with a no-win scenario.

In recent times, there has been a flurry of articles written on problems with the military in general, and the Army in particular, that seek to explain America’s strategic misfortunes in Iraq and elsewhere. William Lind recently argued that America’s recent defeats are rooted in institutional failure in the American military’s officer personnel system. Others call for disruptive thinkers. Other critics blame failed military doctrine. But the criticism must pass an if-then test; if we would have implemented the suggested solution, then we would have accomplished our political objective. Unfortunately, none of these suggestions could pass this test. Democracy in Iraq is the Kobayashi Maru; a no-win scenario.

It was not possible to create a “free, democratic, and stable Iraq.” This was well-known almost from the onset and certainly not in the timeframe America was willing to spend supporting this venture. The process of democratization has been studied for some time. Some of the requisites for democracy — economic wealth distributed across the society, political participation, urbanization, and literacy — were identified by Seymour Lipset as early as 1959. Since that time, additional factors have been identified and the originals refined. Based on these well-known factors, it was clear in 2004 that Iraq was not prepared for democracy. As one professor put it:

Iraq lacks any of the preconditions academics generally accept as being necessary for democratization to succeed. It has no middle class to speak of independent from the state; oil revenues, the life-line of any Iraqi regime, are notorious for their ability to centralize rather than democratize power; the country has no tradition of limited or responsible government; national identity is weak in the face of rival religious or ethnic loyalties; regional neighbors will do what they can to undermine whatever democratizing movements exist; and the democrats themselves lack a figure such as Nelson Mandela or Kim Dae Jung who could give them leadership.

Iraq was possibly the worst place on the planet to attempt to create a democracy. One researcher, taking into account the conditions in Iraq at the time of the invasion, estimated the odds of success at 1,725 to 1. In addition to these social factors, a significant portion of the population of Iraq embraced a tribal value system that was antithetical to democratic legitimacy. The values necessary to embrace power sharing and individual rights were largely absent. Values can change, but that takes time. Given enough time it might have been possible to help the Iraqis build a democratic Iraq. How much time? Twenty years at a minimum for successful democratic consolidation. With all the issues Iraq had to deal with, the researcher estimated it would take 50 years to create a free, democratic and stable government. Even Larry Diamond, one of the more ardent supporters of the Bush administration’s attempt to democratize Iraq, had come to the conclusion in late 2004 that due to the conditions in Iraq and the lack of resources committed to the occupation democracy in Iraq would be a long term project.

Even worse, what the military was able to accomplish, a partial democracy, is the most volatile and least predictable form of government known. When all the factors that can be associated with political instability are ranked, being a partial democracy is number one. Certainly elections in Iraq were a triumph of democracy, but elections alone don’t create democracy. Iraqis have voted in large numbers in the past and will certainly do so again in the near future, but as Professor Bruce E Moon observes “… history shows that it has never been the unwillingness to vote that prevented democracy, but rather the failure to honor the results of those elections.” This is particularly true when factionalism —  a political system dominated by ethnic or parochial groups that regularly compete for influence — is present. Factionalism tends to limit an interest in power-sharing. You might think that factionalism in any system would be divisive, but it is not necessarily destabilizing. As Professor Jack A. Goldstone and his associates noted in their research on political instability “It is only when factionalism is combined with a relatively high level of open competition for office …  that extremely high vulnerability to instability results …”

By holding elections and attempting to create a democratic system in an ethnic and religiously factionalized society, we were creating the very instability we were seeking to suppress. But this was inherent in the mission, and since we had no doctrine on creating or consolidating a democracy, we integrated those tasks into our counterinsurgency and stability doctrine almost ensuring a self-defeating situation.

Ultimately, the mission to create democracy in Iraq was not realistically possible in the time frame allotted. Does this mean that western style democracy is not possible in the Arab world? No. It simply means that the type of social and economic changes that would have to take place to allow for the individual values and intra-group trust necessary for power sharing could not be accomplished in the time given. The seeds of that change have certainly been planted, but it may be several decades before they bear real fruit.

Democracy in Iraq was the American military’s no-win scenario. Therefore, no claims that had we done this or changed that would realistically have altered the result. When looked at from that perspective, how did the American military score on its Kobayashi Maru test? Overall, the military scored pretty well. It never quit. It continued the mission until the political leadership relieved them of that mission. It maintained its dignity and its honor, never turning away from the fight and never blaming those that gave it the impossible mission for its inability to accomplish it. We also learned, or relearned, many lessons. Once the nature of the mission changed from regime change to supporting the nascent Iraqi government, in conjunction with the Department of State, we created Provincial Reconstruction Teams. These teams took the lead on coordinating the training and resources necessary to help build a new Iraqi state.  But there was never going to be enough time to see the mission through till the end.

Are there things we can learn from this experience? Yes. Since the military is going to be used to accomplish political objectives by other means, then we should probably learn a little more about the nature of politics, particularly in the less stable portions of the globe. Efforts to learn to understand the human domain are a good start. Perhaps security should be our first objective, and only once that is achieved, promote democracy. We are also rewriting our doctrine giving greater consideration to the existing socio-cultural conditions on the ground. Does this absolve the American military of criticism? No. There is much to learn from Iraq and there is always room for improvement. The officer education and promotion system is probably behind the times and I have already mentioned needed changes in our doctrine. But for criticism to be valid, it needs to relate to the failure it is trying to rectify. In this case, neither a better officer corps nor a better understanding of counterinsurgency principles would likely have changed the outcome as long as success was defined as a stable, democratic Iraq. For all intents and purposes, democracy in Iraq is the Kobayashi Maru.


Lieutenant Colonel Stan Wiechnik enlisted in the Army in 1982 and received his commission in 1993. A veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, he is a graduate of Command and General Staff College, Indiana University, and Vermont Law School. Currently, he serves in the Office of the Chief, Army Reserve at Fort Belvoir, VA. The views expressed are his own.