The uber-hawks and neocons like Richard Cheney who led America into the disastrous invasion of Iraq are campaigning for a repeat. If only the U.S. will go to war along the Euphrates a second time, they promise, everything will turn out well.
Americans should ignore these Sirens of Death. Attempting to forcibly transform Iraq never was Washington’s responsibility. Having botched the job once, U.S. policymakers should not try again. There certainly is no public support for new military adventures in Mesopotamia.
There was much to despise about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He was a murderous thug with outsize ambitions, but he helped constrain Iran, America’s and Israel’s more feared nemesis. Hussein also enforced an ugly stability at home: he held his fractured country together, suppressed sectarian violence, allowed Christians and other religious minorities to live in peace, and kept al-Qaeda out of areas under his control.
As many analysts, including yours truly, warned, his forced departure would be welcome in principle but bloody in practice. Thousands of Americans killed, tens of thousands of wounded, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, millions displaced, historic Christian communities ravaged, triumphant Shiites wielding a sectarian state against angry Sunnis, bitter conflict spawning violent jihadists, cities acting as terrorist training camps, and metastasizing Iranian influence. Such is George W. Bush’s legacy.
Yet he found little gratitude in Baghdad for Americans’ sacrifice. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ruled with a harsh hand, favored his Shia supporters, and rejected a permanent U.S. military garrison. President Barack Obama achieved no more success in dealing with Maliki. Attempting to force a permanent U.S. presence would have created popular resentment, put Washington’s imprimatur on an authoritarian, corrupt regime, and turned American military personnel into targets of angry mobs and trained terrorists.
“The Middle East appears to be a tragedy permanently set on repeat.”
Nor would a U.S. garrison have saved Iraq from internal collapse. American troops could not have forced positive political change. Washington’s only leverage would come from threatening to withdraw its forces—which Maliki almost certainly would have accepted before relaxing control. Employing U.S. troops against Baghdad’s opponents, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other Sunni extremists, would have been far worse. Eight years of war and occupation was enough. America had no obligation to safeguard the artificial Iraqi state and preserve incompetent sectarian rule forever.
Washington nevertheless helped arm the Iraqi military, but a secret program begun last year to aid Baghdad against Sunni militants foundered. The Maliki government failed to maintain an effective force. Earlier this year the Obama administration sent an assessment team to Iraq which found, according to the Wall Street Journal: “Sunni Army officers had been forced out, overall leadership had declined, the Iraqi military wasn’t maintaining its equipment and had stopped conducting rigorous training.” These failings were dramatically illustrated when Iraqi military units melted away in the face of ISIS attacks, with soldiers stripping off their uniforms and abandoning their weapons.
Having sown the wind, the Maliki government now is reaping the whirlwind. It lost control of Fallujah in December. In the last couple of weeks it surrendered Mosul, Iraq’s second most populous city, Tikrit, Hussein’s home town, and several border crossings with Syria. Prime Minister Maliki never was much of a giant; he now appears to have an entire body of clay.
Yet the situation is not nearly as threatening for Washington as for Baghdad. So far ISIS has acted as an insurgency in both Syria and Iraq, not a terrorist group targeting America. In fact, the organization’s break with al-Qaeda reflected the latter’s focus on the “far enemy,” that is, the U.S. In contrast, ISIS is seeking to establish a real state in the Middle East, and the organization’s willingness to kill the impure within does not mean it wants to risk its practical gains in a war without against the U.S. Obviously this could change, but Washington should not encourage retaliation against Americans by needlessly striking the group.
Moreover, Iraq will not fall under ISIS control and become a terrorist state. Despite grabbing most of Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, the radicals lack the resources necessary to conquer Iraq or even take Baghdad. Their Sunni allies want regional autonomy or a fairer distribution of the national spoils, not a radical Islamic state. So far Baathist loyalists and tribal leaders have cooperated with ISIS to oust their Shia overlords, but the former are not likely to accept permanent Islamist rule. In fact, some clashes already have occurred. Moreover, by making the conflict into a stark religious war ISIS has galvanized Iraq’s Shia majority, with young men joining the military and Shiite militias cooperating with security forces. A bitter and potentially long struggle between essentially lawless paramilitaries on both sides impends.
Into this violent and unpredictable imbroglio President Obama is sending “up to 300” Special Forces. Even worse, he maintains the possibility of “targeted, precise military action,” presumably meaning air and drone strikes. Of course, his objectives appear modest compared to those of Frederick Kagan and William Kristol, who called for use of American ground units to not only stop ISIS, but bring the Shia-dominated government to heel, demobilize Shiite militias, limit Tehran’s influence, and force the withdrawal of any Iranian military units.
Taking on Baghdad and Tehran as well as ISIS simultaneously wouldn’t likely end well. As for dealing with Sunni militants, Maliki’s Shia-dominated government has the required numbers and resources. If money was all that was needed, the $14 billion that America spent on the Iraqi security forces should suffice. But Baghdad’s military lacks leadership and commitment while the Iraqi state lacks credibility and will. These Washington cannot provide, especially with the Iraqi people having so little faith in their government.
The administration has pushed Maliki to be more inclusive—as U.S. officials did unsuccessfully when America still occupied that nation. In his inimitable fashion, Vice President Joe Biden called on Iraqis to “pull together” to end sectarianism. Receiving no response to this stirring call to action, Washington now is not so subtly attempting to oust Maliki from power. This is a dubious venture.
For the record the president stated that it is “not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders.” However, a week ago the president said that a precursor to American military action was “a political plan by Iraqis that gives us assurances that they are prepared to work together.” Maliki then pointedly rejected demands for his scalp, even as a condition of aid. After all, he has been in power for eight years and finished first in the parliamentary election two months ago.
Now the administration is promising assistance, which likely will increase Maliki’s determination to stand firm. His spokesman called on Washington to back the government against ISIS rather than encourage personnel changes. Many Shiites have rallied around Maliki and Iran continues to back him. Any concessions he reluctantly grants could be revoked the moment the crisis passes. The U.S. effort to displace him will make cooperation with Maliki and his supporters more difficult.
Even successfully defenestrating him might bring little improvement—in searching for a new premier U.S. officials apparently have been talking with a number of figures, some of whom are untested or even less credible than Maliki. Such as Ahmed Chalabi, the corrupt expatriate once on Washington’s payroll whose “informant” helped lie America into the war. Afterwards Chalabi became quite friendly with the Iranians. He is an unlikely miracle-worker. Moreover, pushing someone else into power would tie America to him, something Washington oft has ended up regretting. The U.S. once promoted Maliki.
Military action is even more problematic. Airpower offers no simple solution. The allies employed some 25,000 strikes on behalf of highly-motivated opposition forces in Libya and the latter still took several months to triumph in a desert-oriented campaign. Air strikes have limited effectiveness in urban warfare and cannot liberate captured cities. To limit “collateral damage” airpower best relies on ground support for targeting, something that could not be left to sectarian Iraqi forces.
Unfortunately, while an air campaign would minimize the risk to U.S. military personnel it would not insulate Americans from terrorism. Another war on Muslims would make even more enemies of America. Indeed, targeting Sunni areas would mean killing people, including noncombatants, who once allied with Washington against al-Qaeda, the key to the success of the Bush “surge.” The U.S. cannot escape blowback if it joins another Mideast conflict.
A durable solution is more likely to emerge from diplomatic consultations among the major Middle Eastern powers, Shiite and Sunni. De facto partition, perhaps with autonomous Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish zones within a highly federalized state, offers at least a possibility of peaceful coexistence. Something similar may be best for Syria as well, with the artificial historic boundaries honored for purposes of international diplomacy but little more. While Washington could help advance such an approach, no plan will succeed without support of regional states and local peoples.
The Middle East appears to be a tragedy permanently set on repeat. That is a reason for America to stay out, not jump in. Speaking of Iran’s sectarian proclivities, the president opined that “old habits die hard.” His sentiment more accurately applies to Washington’s compulsion to intervene militarily all over the world all the time.
A decade ago America foolishly blew up one of the most important countries in the Middle East. The rise of ISIS and fragmentation of Iraq are merely two among many unintended consequences of the U.S. invasion. Obviously the U.S. did not leave behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq,” as President Obama claimed in 2011. Getting involved again will not do so either. America cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Washington should learn a little humility and leave the clean-up to others.
Invading Iraq was a disastrous decision. Americans have paid in blood; Barack Obama should not repeat Bush’s mistake.