Iraq: No Military Redo a Decade Later

Little more than a decade ago the U.S. invaded Iraq.  The promised cakewalk turned out far different than expected.  Today the government—and entire state—created by Washington are in crisis.  Yet the same voices again are being raised calling for military intervention.  With the promise that this time everything will turn out well.

Social engineers never seem to learn.  It is hard enough to redesign and remake individuals, families, and communities in America.  It is far harder to do so overseas.

As I point out in my latest Freeman column:  “Nation-building requires surmounting often vast differences in tradition, culture, history, religion, ethnicity, ideology, geography, and more.  Doing so also requires suppressing the natural desire of people to govern themselves.”

Yet these days Washington continues to try to fix the world’s problems.  However, reentering Iraq would be unique, an attempted redo barely a decade after the first go. 

The original Iraq operation was supposed to be a quick, bloodless war that destroyed dangerous weapons of mass destruction and “drained the swamp,” eliminating terrorism.  The U.S. would guarantee a friendly, compliant government by imposing as president an exile who hadn’t lived in the country for decades.  The new Iraq would implement democracy, eschew sectarian division, protect women’s rights, and even recognize Israel, while providing America bases for use in attacking neighboring states, including Iran.

This wonderful wish list was pure fantasy. 

The conflict killed thousands and wounded tens of thousands of Americans, and killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions of Iraqis.  The ancient Christian community was destroyed. 

The ultimate financial cost, including the expense of caring for those who sustained debilitating wounds, to America likely will run $3 trillion or more.  America’s reputation was stained, Iran was empowered, and terrorists were trained.  Finally, Baghdad’s sectarian misrule wrecked national institutions and fostered the rise of an ugly Islamic totalitarianism. 

The obvious—indeed, only—policy for Americans is to run, not walk, away from the mess.  Yet many of the architects of the original disaster are back, advocating a second shot.

The administration is putting in Special Forces.  Many others advocate drone and air strikes.  A few forthrightly call for boots on the ground. 

There’s no doubt that ISIL is a malignant force.  But the U.S. should make clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that Americans will not bail him out after his policies led to the ongoing catastrophe.  Without political reform it is hard to see how Iraq can be saved.

Baghdad must engage Sunni tribes and former Baathists who allied with ISIL to oust the national government from Sunni areas of Iraq.  In any case, Washington should drop its insistence that Iraq stay together.  Extensive federalism/partition may be the only way to prevent endless killing.

The U.S. also needs to stop supporting Syria’s opposition.  Instead, the priority should be stopping ISIL.  President Bashar al-Assad is odious, but his dictatorship is not dedicated to destabilizing the entire region. 

Finally, American officials should invite allies, friends, and even adversaries to cooperate to contain ISIL.  Numerous nations have good reason to isolate, sanction, and even strike ISIL.

Turkey and Jordan have capable militaries. Iran, though no friend, shares Washington’s antipathy toward ISIL.  Lebanon is vulnerable. 

The Gulf States, including Kuwait, the emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia also are targeted for subversion.  Israel does not want to see a radical Islamist state, especially one which wrecks Jordan next door.  These nations have different capabilities and interests, but all could help contain and ultimately roll back ISIL’s gains.

The revival of civil war and veritable collapse of Iraq’s central state are tragedies, but not ones affecting vital American interests.  The lesson from 2003 is clear:  war truly should be a last resort, never just another policy tool to be used when convenient.  The Iraqi imbroglio beckons the usual policy suspects, but the right response is to say no, the Americans aren’t coming.