The last week, which has seen murderously radical Sunni jihadists take over much of Iraq and even threaten Baghdad, has witnessed the unraveling of the past dozen years of U.S. policy in that country, and with it the collapse of our entire strategy towards the Middle East. There is ample blame to go around. I have no intention here of reopening the debate about the wisdom of invading Iraq in 2003, since that would require a book rather than a blog post, though if it’s not evident to you by now that Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, as executed, was perhaps the greatest disaster in the history of American foreign policy, I’m not sure this blog’s for you. That said, I am tired of the constant efforts to decontextualize the actual history of how we wound up invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein; scoring cheap political points off complex matters of statecraft is too easy and, as I’ve said before, deeply toxic in a democracy. Let this be a reminder that “regime change” in Iraq was the policy of the Clinton administration, with the near-unanimous backing of Congress, going back deep into the 1990s. If America made a complete hash of its 2003-2011 grand expedition to Mesopotamia – and at this point it’s difficult to make any other case – it did so in a fully bipartisan fashion (here I implore readers to recall that Democrats were more enthusiastic about attacking Iraq in 2003, under the dumb/bad Bush, than they were in 1991, under the wise/good Bush) that bears witness to a systemic failure of our Republic to create and implement non-stupid foreign policy.
Moreover, for all the mistakes and obfuscations of George W. Bush’s presidency over Iraq, not to mention the strange machinations of Vice President-cum-Majordomo Dick Cheney, which were surely legion, the fact remains that the White House was poorly served by (most of) our senior military leadership throughout the Iraq War. This is not a politic thing to mention, since adulation of the U.S. military, customarily from a safe distance, is one of the few fully bipartisan efforts left in American political life, and openly criticizing our decision-makers in uniform, even when they make terrible mistakes, is a good way to become an instant pariah in Washington, DC. Plenty of senior officers were amply aware that the Iraq War, as planned, was a fool’s errand doomed to fail, but nearly all of them kept quiet about it. Despite the fact that top officers at the three- and four-star level have very generous pensions and benefits that would in no way be endangered by “speaking truth to power,” exactly one senior military officer dared to seriously protest the impending disaster in Iraq, putting in his retirement papers after his efforts inside the Pentagon to resist Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s madcap war plan got nowhere. It is important to note that General Eric Shinseki, recently in the news over his disastrous management of the Veterans Administration, who became a darling to the Left as the U.S. Army chief of staff for his public criticism over the coming Iraq War, noting (entirely accurately, let it be said) that the war plan was grossly inadequate to the predictable needs of post-Saddam Iraq, did not do anything really significant like resign in protest. Might such an act, the Army’s top general taking off his stars and resigning in protest, have caused the real debate that was so needed before Iraq was invaded? Sadly, we will never know.
There are many competing myths about our Iraq War, but two of them stand out at present. First is the myth that, yes, things went badly in Phase IV (the post-invasion period), including some avoidable stupidities like snap-disbanding the Iraqi military and tearing apart what functioning state edifice the country possessed, but this was eventually saved, almost magically, by the so-called Surge in 2007, led by the sage General David Petraeus, which snapped victory from the jaws of defeat, thanks to the efforts of the U.S. military, laying the foundation for long-term success – until, of course, it was thrown away by President Obama. The prevailing counter-myth, which shares some of the same narrative, has it that Obama engineered a solid outcome in his first administration, and when the last U.S. troops departed Iraq at the end of 2011, their sacrifices were not in vain, as they left behind a country that was a more-or-less functioning democracy and a much more secure, pleasant and coherent place than Saddam’s Iraq was. The disaster that has unfolded in Iraq of late is, in this telling, something that nobody could have foreseen: it’s a freak geopolitical accident, for which the United States, and particularly the Obama administration, has no blame. If you like the first myth, FoxNews is there for you, while if the latter myth holds more appeal, you’ve got MSNBC. Let it be noted, however, that both these myths share certain misconceptions and are grounded in deep untruths.
In the first place, the collapse of Iraq into sectarian violence in 2003-2004, after the brutally ramshackle Saddam regime fell apart before American armor, was entirely predictable, indeed it was foreseen clearly by quite a few people, as it required not clairvoyance just some understanding of the kind of place Iraq actually is, but this was considered “off-message” by the White House and the Pentagon, which did not want to hear reality-based negativity, and it was therefore easy to ignore. Moreover, the 2007 Surge was a merely tactical success, where U.S. forces were playing a co-starring role in the nasty Sunni-Shia civil war that has constituted the main narrative of post-Saddam Iraq and, more important, it produced no lasting political success, thanks to persistent American tone-deafness about Mesopotamian realities. (If you want a full evisceration of the Surge myth, Gian Gentile is your man.) Since war is ultimately a political act, military operations that do not lead to important political outcomes in the end represent strategic noise.
Nevertheless, the second Iraq myth is just as misguided in its avoidance of reality. Although I am sympathetic to the Obama White House’s desire to get away from a losing war that they had no part in starting, walking away was not a rational strategic option for the United States in January 2009, yet in many ways that is exactly what happened. At this juncture, it is not churlish to note that if Barack Obama did not want to seriously deal with America’s Iraq mess, he really should not have run for president in 2008. It is commonplace to cite the negative effects of Obama’s failure to secure a long-term Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Baghdad, to allow limited U.S. military presence in the country after 2011, and there should be no illusions regarding how unkind history will be to this White House about the matter, but the underlying political mess is the bigger issue – which Obama’s team also avoided thinking about seriously. Simply put, it was entirely predictable that, left to his own devices, Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki – a dictatorial sectarian bully who has been a pawn of Iranian intelligence for over three decades – would marginalize and oppress Iraq’s Sunnis until they engaged in major armed revolt against Baghdad. But this reality was “off-message” to the Obama administration despite – or perhaps because of – its obviousness and was wished away in the face of numerous warnings. Now that Sunnis are in violent uprising against the Maliki government, pushing aside Iraq’s U.S.-trained military like a wet rag, and led by a bunch of jihadist fanatics that proved too violent for al-Qa’ida membership, the failure of Obama’s Iraq policy is plain for the world to see.
As a historian, I always seek analogies for conflicts, since why reinvent the wheel when you don’t need to? America’s 2003-2011 war in Iraq bears startling similarity to Germany’s struggle in Yugoslavia during the Second World War. In April 1941, the Wehrmacht invaded Yugoslavia, a cobbled-together multiethnic dictatorship, and the country’s impressive-on-paper military folded almost without a fight. Yet the rapid victory – the German “thunder run” on Belgrade was just as impressive as America’s on Baghdad in 2003 – merely opened up the real conflict, a nasty ethnic-cum-sectarian war of all-against-all, in which long-standing grievances were acted out in a genocidal fashion. In this, the Germans were mostly spectators, with fighting raging around them that the Wehrmacht barely understood. In response, the German military forged alliances with local partners and satellites, yet this was problematic since these were often unreliable and frequently used German-supplied weapons to rape, murder and pillage rather than fight rebels. Nevertheless, the Germans won pretty much every fight in Yugoslavia, and had the ability to move wherever they wanted, annihilating rebels along the way. Their spring 1944 “surge” was a genuine success. But they never had enough troops in the country to make their victories last, and politically it was hopeless anyway, thanks to magical thinking in Berlin. The fight among the Yugoslavs might have lasted decades, had not the Germans lost the war altogether in the spring of 1945 (it bears noting that, when Yugoslavia collapsed for the second and final time in 1991, the ethnic-sectarian mayhem restarted, like clockwork). This analogy is an obvious one, though not particularly welcome in the Pentagon. I was employing it as early as 2004, to deaf (and usually hostile) ears, since: 1. How dare anyone compare the U.S. military to the nasty Wehrmacht, and 2. The Germans lost the war and, of course, the invincible U.S. military never loses wars. In response, I wrote an article that should have been a bit more politically acceptable, on how to handily defeat an insurgency in a heavily Muslim country, without relying on mass brutality, while securing long-term political success – that, too, was ignored. After the end of the Cold War, when Soviet archives revealed how astonishingly brutal Stalin had been, the eminent historian Robert Conquest is said to have suggested that his 1968 magnum opus The Great Terror – which had been criticized from the Left for allegedly overstating Soviet crimes, when in actuality it may have understated them – be reissued under the title I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.
Debating what went wrong in Iraq, and why, must be done, but the more pressing matter now is addressing the disaster that has predictably unfolded this spring. There is now a general Sunni uprising that may destroy the Iraqi state altogether. While it is likely that the jihadist madmen behind ISIS will soon wear out their welcome among fellow Sunnis with their murder and mayhem, following the customary takfiri pattern, Sunni discontent with Maliki and his system has reached a point that it will not be easy to bring to heel without truly massive force and brutality. How long Iraq can survive under this strain is an open question, though there is no doubt that ISIS, like many Sunnis, view their aim as nothing less than shattering that unwanted state and the whole post-1918 Western-imposed order in the Middle East. Redrawing those borders has long been a favored option among strategists on the verge of despair, but it is wise to note that similar post-1918 Western-imposed borders were shunted aside in the Balkans in the 1990s, amidst war and genocide, and there is every reason to expect that the outcomes will be similar in the Middle East, albeit on a far grander scale of conflict and bloodshed.
It’s clear that America will not put “boots on the ground” in Iraq to save the Maliki government, which is sensible given the severity of the mess; reinserting U.S. troops into this hornet’s nest of sectarian war is not a recipe for lasting success. American airpower may have a role to play, if we are willing to use it. Until this week, I never feared Salafi jihadists setting up their fantasy-caliphate on an actual piece of real estate because they wear our their welcome among fellow Muslims quickly, and just as important they present an easy target for our Air Force. Whatever our shortcomings in “nation-building,” the U.S. military is astonishingly effective at delivering punishing firepower from the air, almost anywhere of our choosing. I had always assumed that no U.S. president would hesitate to use AC-130 gunships on murderous jihadists gathering in the open, but that apparently was a mistaken assumption. Recently, Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey explained that we do not have enough intelligence regarding the situation on the ground in Iraq to use our mighty airpower to defeat ISIS. What he means is we do not possess sufficient information to target jihadists with the remarkable degree of precision that the U.S. military has become accustomed to possessing in Afghanistan today and Iraq before our 2011 withdrawal. Time-sensitive signals intelligence combined with imagery allowed U.S. forces to hit the bad guys with a historically unprecedented degree of accuracy, with little “collateral damage” i.e. dead civilians. But this was an anomaly that does not represent a standard that can achieved without actually occupying the country in question. People die in war, including innocents, no matter how hard we strive to prevent that, as we rightly do, but the pretty lies of technology gurus and defense contractors have deceived many about the nature of war, even in the era of precision weaponry and persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. The murderous madmen of ISIS are plausibly the Worst People in the World, and if they do not deserve the punishing blows of U.S. airpower, nobody anywhere does.
The alternative is letting Shia militias, under Iranian command and control, do the dirty work against ISIS, and we should have no illusions about how dirty that will be, against the entire Sunni population, not just the jihadists. Iraq’s incompetent and cowardly army has largely folded, but Shia volunteers, encouraged by the blessing of Ayatollah al-Sistani, their spiritual leader, are marshaling to crush the Sunni uprising. They will use proven local methods, which will kill more innocents than thousands of American airstrikes would. Moreover, outsourcing the defense of the Maliki clique to the Iranians, the prime minister’s true masters, bespeaks truly grand American failure in Iraq. We have cooperated with Iranian spies and terrorists before, in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, and the outcome was far from edifying; Iraq will be no different, just on a bigger and more important battlefield. When you wind up with your least-bad option being partnering with the Pasdaran, Iran’s feared Revolutionary Guards Corps, listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by our own government, you’ve been doing strategy wrong for some time.
Yet after many Mesopotamian mishaps for many years, caused by numerous avoidable errors that are rooted in institutionalized escapism from reality in our foreign and defense policy, working with the Iranians to keep Iraq from melting away altogether, amidst all-out war and possibly genocide, really may be the least-bad outcome today. The ultimate trajectory of the conflict now unfolding can only be guessed at, but two of the core objectives of U.S. policy in Iraq since 2003 – preventing a jihadist sanctuary from emerging and preserving some sort of functional unitary Iraqi state – have signally failed, and avoiding that reality will not change it. There is ample blame to go around in Washington, DC, and throughout our security apparatus and political system. We were at war with Iraq for twenty years, nonstop from 1991 to 2011 – it never really registered with the public, but the U.S. airmen who had to maintain watch over Iraq every day between 1991 and 2003, regularly getting shot at, will be happy to clarify for you that there was no peace with Iraq in the aftermath of Operation DESERT STORM – and there is, now, only strategic failure to show for it. This is something that we must confront honestly, with as little partisan bickering as possible, as unlikely as that is, so we can salvage our Middle East position before it crumbles altogether and reduces our global prestige to nothing. Only fools do not understand that Moscow and Beijing are watching all this very closely. Iraq was America’s biggest, longest and bloodiest war of Ottoman succession. Let us hope it is also the last.
In my next piece I will outline just how America’s post-Cold War delusions about “nation-building” wound up taking center stage in our foreign policy … watch this space.
[As ever, the author’s comments are his own and in no way representative of any of his employers, past or present.]