As the United States teeters on the edge of its third invasion of Iraq in three decades, most recently sending 450 advisors to aid the Baghdad government, the situation in-country isn’t pretty. ISIS stalks the borderlands of the Levant and Mesopotamia, while its primary opponents, the Iraqi Shiites, are bankrolled and advised by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. This already puts the United States between a rock and a hard place. But further factors – from the raging war in neighboring Syria to the broad regional competition between the Sunni monarchies and Iran to the currently-underway Iranian nuclear deal – make for a more complicated situation in the Middle East than any in recent memory. The American position amidst all this – strapped as it is on all sides, constrained by contradictory commitments and limits – is even more mind-boggling.
The American public doesn’t know quite what to make of this mess. Think tanks, academics and policymakers don’t seem to have any constructive ideas on a way forward, so discussion of “what’s going on” usually devolves into a game of finger-pointing.
Partisan Republicans blame the ongoing chaos on President Obama and his relative dovishness, restraint and inaction. To them, Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech was hopeless pandering to the Muslim world at best, and shameful apologizing at worst. They see the President’s single-minded focus on a (weak) nuclear deal with Iran as appeasement. Worse, they believe the President to have sold out on crucial allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. The President’s gradual withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan they consider a resignation to defeat, surrendering a noble cause.
Partisan Democrats place their blame further back, on President Bush and his reckless militarism, trigger-happy attitude and crusading zeal for democracy promotion. To many, the War in Afghanistan was potentially justified, had it ended after the defeat of the Taliban. But the War in Iraq was either foolish adventurism or evil incarnate—the first stage of an aggressive American empire, or otherwise a greedy machination to secure oil supplies. More importantly, President Bush’s insistence on democracy promotion in Iraq and Afghanistan by the sword, and in other Middle Eastern countries by political pressure, was seen as an affront to the rights of those societies. Democrats tend to think President Bush started something he didn’t need to start, for all the wrong reasons.
As is the case with most political debates and indeed most historical ones, both perspectives contain elements of truth. Bush’s reckless bravado did in fact lead us into an unwinnable war, because the goals we set were impossible to attain. Obama’s reluctance to demonstrate American military power did indeed allow rival powers like ISIS and Iran to hack out domains for themselves in which they could operate with impunity, unmolested by American strength. But neither narrative tells a fully convincing story.
So here’s my take on it.
Ever since the First Gulf War in 1991, we were bound to wind up invading Iraq again sooner or later. Saddam Hussein was simply too unstable—we would never be able to trust him to act predictably. The US airstrikes on Iraq ordered by President Clinton throughout the 1990s were made in response to Saddam’s barbarism against the northern Kurds and his willingness to bend the regional balance of power.
Come the early 2000s and the War on Terror, Saddam was not, in fact, supplying weapons to terrorists, or anything of the kind. In fact, his Ba’ath Party was a wholly secular institution—the Wahhabis in al-Qaeda were his rivals. Nonetheless, an Iraqi WMD would be unacceptable for the US, not because the regime might give it to terrorists but because it would immensely change the geopolitical dynamic in the Middle East. The Saudis, Turks, Egyptians and Iranians would soon pursue nukes of their own—and the Saudis and Iranians were known to have close working relations with different groups of jihadist terrorists.
Because we perceived that Saddam would soon become more powerful, we invaded. (Much of the credit goes to the then-powerful neoconservatives in the President’s circle, too; but even had Al Gore then been President, the impetus to attack Saddam would have been strong, for strategic reasons).
I think invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein was a sensible policy, justifiable on strategic grounds. Saddam had proven himself to be irrational and aggressive, an unacceptable combination in a region through which a significant portion of the world’s energy supplies flowed. We needed him out.
That said, the conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom was an embarrassment to strategic studies and political theory, not to mention to the US Military. When we went in with something like a third of the troops top generals recommended, we went in unprepared. When we declared that our mission was to turn Iraq into something we would recognize as a functioning liberal democracy, we bit off more than we could chew. And when we assumed that we could attain that transformation by the sword, we set off a rabid insurgency and civil war that killed 4,000 American soldiers and countless more Iraqis. The conduct of the war was a disaster in almost every sense.
It seems that Bush realized his blunders, though, as his Presidency waned. Gone were the annunciations of impending democratic transition, and in were the enterprising generals who practiced revised counterinsurgency strategies. By the aftermath of the Surge of 2007-2008, the civil war had died down and order, the prerequisite of political institutions, was beginning to become a norm. Sunni and Shiite militias both joined us in the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq and radical militias. The Iraqi people were becoming a nation. We weren’t winning, but we were creating a strategic reality more amenable to our interests.
As the occupation drew on, President Bush left and President Obama entered the Oval Office and, sticking true to his campaign pledges, began reducing the US military presence in Iraq. By 2010 the formal US military presence had been removed from the country, although thousands of advisors remained.
Over the years, the sectarian violence returned and Iraq’s new governing institutions decayed into insignificance. The US-backed Iraqi military did what it could, but it was largely inept in the face of newly radicalizing militant groups. Everything we had fought to build and protect in the Second Gulf War was destroyed; because we left, and because chaos and insurgency returned, we lost the second round of warfare in Iraq.
The third round is brewing; its initial stages began right after we lost the second. Islamist fighters from the war in Syria spilled over the border, and one group in particular – the Islamic State in Iraq – built up its power until it grew strong enough to challenge the Iraqi government head on. Shortly after it declared a caliphate, it began its psychological warfare campaign of social media-publicized beheadings and dramatic, sweeping assaults on government forces, and the Western media began referring to it as “ISIS”. The US responded incrementally, much as it did in Vietnam—a few airstrikes here, some advisors there, now a Special Forces raid and national public statements whenever the public recoiled aghast at some magnificent slaughter or execution.
President Obama has been reluctant to intervene more decisively against ISIS in Iraq, knowing that the US public has no appetite for a third war in the cradle of civilization. He has hoped that the neighboring states whose interests are more directly threatened – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Iran – would rise to the problem themselves. And they are doing so to a degree. But it remains doubtful whether the final end result of their action will be acceptable to American interests, especially if the Iranians carve out a greater sphere of influence in Iraq and the Sunni states bolster funding to radical Sunni militias to curtail Iranian power. President Obama’s inaction, hesitancy to project US power, and lack of a coherent vision for American policy in the Middle East has allowed regional players to roam about freely and create a scenario roundly hostile to US interests.
At the moment, though, President Obama does seem to be stepping up his game and taking (slightly) more assertive action against ISIS in Iraq. It is not enough yet; but perhaps once the deal with Iran has been reached, he will dedicate more effort to finding a strategic solution for Iraq. It seems clear that deeper US involvement – and far more importantly, wiser US strategic thinking – will be necessary to carve an acceptable endgame in Iraq in particular and the Middle East in general. With luck, Obama or his successor can make the intervention swift and effective, with long-lasting results.
I don’t have a clue what the winning strategy for Iraq might be, and I hope some strategic thinker comes out with one soon. It would most likely involve a splitting-up of Iraq into smaller units, including an independent Kurdistan, and a complete extermination of ISIS’s military forces. The coming deal with Iran will entrench the mullahs’ strategic position, so we would be wise to balance against that by removing Bashar as-Assad in Syria and replacing him with a moderate Sunni regime in Damascus. We would also be wise to continue building up our relations with the Sunni kingdoms, especially our strained relationship with Saudi Arabia—with no large buffer between the Sunni states and Iran, it may be time to beef them up in ways previously unthinkable, perhaps including a permanent forward military presence in Iraq not unlike those we maintain in Europe and Japan.
So who is to “blame” for Iraq?
Both President Bush and President Obama are to blame for the loss of the Second Iraq War. Bush doomed the mission from the start by setting the bar too high and acting recklessly; Obama abjectly surrendered the cause to fate (and American public opinion) in the complete withdrawal of US troops. While Obama’s was more direct and Bush’s more egregious, both errors equally contributed to our defeat.
However, both Bush and Obama learned from their mistakes. Bush began to pursue a more prudent strategy in his second term, while Obama has been less averse to using military force in his later second term. Perhaps there would have been a better outcome if Bush had learned to be a fox earlier, and if Obama learns to be a lion soon. Ultimately it was too late for either to correct their mistakes before time ran out; we can only hope that President Obama’s successor pursues a prudent and firm strategy from the very beginning.
We won Iraq I resoundingly, and we surrendered Iraq II. Iraq III has already begun, as American airstrikes, Special Forces activity and the lily-pad bases now dotting the country demonstrate. There has been no full-fledged invasion, but Americans again go to war in the land between the rivers. It’s increasingly starting to look like Lyndon Johnson’s slow, quiet and public opinion-minded escalation of American involvement in Vietnam.
This will not do—we have a quagmire waiting to happen, a whirlpool waiting to suck in the lives of thousands more American troops. Deeper American involvement in Iraq is unavoidable, contrary to General Dempsey’s claims, but we should make it as effective and decisive as possible so as to save the most blood and treasure while winning the best strategic reality. That means that the next President of the United States has to look clear-eyed at the world, and the Middle East in particular, and determine what strategic reality he wants to leave for his successor. Then he or she must do everything in their power to make that situation a reality—and with luck, that situation will be a stable Middle East with a healthy balance of power maintained by prudent American statecraft. Victory in Iraq is an integral component of a more secure Middle Eastern peace, but victory will be unattainable until we define our objectives for the Middle East moving forward. Just beating ISIS doesn’t cut it.
Were it not for the Middle East’s geostrategic position between Europe and Asia and its vast oil supplies to those continents, perhaps we could ignore it with the leisure with which we ignore Sub-Saharan Africa. But we can’t. As protectors of the liberal international order, we have vital interests in the Middle East that aren’t about to go away. Our duty as a superpower will continue to draw us into the Persian Gulf until Europe and Asia no longer run on oil, or else until we can establish a relatively stable regional order like that which existed from 1945 to 1979. Until then, periodic regional war will be the norm. We must win Iraq III decisively, and create a successful new strategic reality in the Middle East, if we are to preclude an Iraq IV.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.