What's Missing from the Iraq Debate


The outpouring of commentary surrounding the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war can feel like déjà vu all over again. The political battle lines have changed very little over the past decade: Mostly, those who opposed the war decry the invasion, and its supporters defend it. There have been plenty of (often very good) diagnoses of what went wrong, but the parallel push for intervention in Syria and war with Iran suggests that few lessons will actually be learned from the war.

But here's one surprising detail about the flood of retrospectives: They have almost exclusively been written by Americans, talking about Americans, for Americans. Indeed, many Iraqis fail to see the point of commemorating the disastrous war for the benefit of the American media.

American strategic narcissism is nothing new, of course. The notion that what the United States does is the most important aspect of every development pervades American foreign-policy punditry, whether about Iraq or Egypt, Syria and the Arab uprisings. But we really should know better by now: First, the entire point of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq was to get soldiers out in to the population, meeting with people and winning their trust. What's more, the "surge" of U.S. troops in 2007 could not have succeeded without the Sunni turn against al Qaeda in Iraq, which preceded it. Second, the Arab Spring's ethos of citizen empowerment should have made it impossible to ignore the agency of the people in the region.

How American-centric has the outpouring of commentary been? Very. The New Republic got eight writers to comment on the anniversary, none Iraqi. Foreign Affairs put out a very good retrospective of its coverage of Iraq with 11 articles and 25 contributors, none Iraqi. The New York Times managed to find one, out of six roundtable contributors. And to show that there's no house bias here, the otherwise fascinating roundtable overseen by my Foreign Policy boss invited 20 significant participants in the war to talk about its lessons -- and didn't include a single Iraqi. (We've got a few pieces by Iraqis in the works for the Middle East Channel, but we could do better, too.) The bestselling books about Iraq also tend to focus on American military strategy, Washington policy debates, or Gen. David Petraeus, with only token appearances by Iraqis. Exceptions, such as Mark Kukis's Voices From Iraq, the late Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near, and Nir Rosen's exceptional reporting from inside the insurgencies only prove the rule. 

This America-centric bias ensnares academics as well as policymakers. Take, for example, the best scholarly account to date of the impact of the surge, by my George Washington University colleague Steve Biddle, along with Jacob Shapiro and Jeffrey Friedman. Their article does a commendable job of dissecting the complex causation of the battlefield changes in 2006 to 2008, concluding that both local developments such as the Anbar Awakening and the surge contributed to the reduction in violence. But consider this: The underlying data for the analysis is based upon a dataset of "significant activities" (SIGACTs) recorded by Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF-I) headquarters and 70 interviews with coalition officers who fought in Iraq during this period. A collection of oral histories from Anbar Province, published by the Marine Corps University, makes it into the middle of a long footnote.

In other words, what is by consensus the best academic work on the subject evaluates the surge entirely based upon the experiences and records of the U.S. military. If MNF-I did not record an incident, it did not happen; if Iraqi voices were not taken into account by U.S. military officers on the scene, they do not exist. (I tried to incorporate Iraqi attitudes and voices into a strategic analysis of the war in this Security Studies article; judge for yourself if it succeeded.)

Myopia has consequences. Failing to listen to those Iraqi voices meant getting important things badly wrong. Most profoundly, the American filter tends to minimize the human costs and existential realities of military occupation and a brutal, nasty war. The savage civil war caused mass displacement and sectarian slaughter that will be remembered for generations. The U.S. occupation also involved massive abuses and shameful episodes, from torture at Abu Ghraib Prison to a massacre of unarmed Iraqis in the city of Haditha. The moral and ethical imperative to incorporate Iraqi perspectives should be obvious.

The habit of treating Iraqis as objects to be manipulated rather than as fully equal human beings -- with their own identities and interests -- isn't just ethically problematic, it's strategically problematic. It helps to explain why so many American analysts failed to anticipate or to prevent the insurgency, why the political institutions the United States designed proved so dysfunctional, why Washington drew the wrong lessons from the Anbar Awakening and the surge, and why so many analysts exaggerated the likely effects of a military withdrawal.

Take the Anbar Awakening, which is widely considered a turning point in the war. The decision by key Sunni tribes and factions within the Sunni insurgency to turn against the more extreme al Qaeda factions took shape in 2006, long before the "surge" had been conceived, decided upon, or implemented. To their credit, some key American military commanders did manage to grasp what was happening, and were flexible enough to cut deals with groups who had recently been fighting against them. But American troop levels and strategy did not cause the Awakening.

But strategic narcissism meant that the lessons drawn from Anbar too often were about counterinsurgency strategy rather than about responding effectively to local political and social developments. In the U.S. political debate, the Awakening and the surge were conflated in highly misleading ways. Washington obsessed about troop levels and the strategies of U.S. generals, perhaps because those were among the few variables they could control. But that action bias slid all too easily into the analytical conceit that troop levels and American strategy where what mattered, rather than the shifting balance of power, interests, identities and expectations of the Iraqi political forces themselves. That misreading -- making U.S. strategy rather than local conditions central -- in turn led to the misapplication of COIN to a quixotic surge in Afghanistan, where none of those local factors were present. It predictably failed.

What about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq? It's fair to say that most analysts at the time predicted disaster and preferred to keep American troops in Iraq indefinitely. They warned darkly that without American troops to police fragile local ceasefires and reassure a frightened Iraqi elite, order would break down and civil war would resume. But instead, Iraqi politics have hardly changed at all: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was consolidating power and behaving in semi-authoritarian ways with American troops on the ground, and he has done the same after they left. Sunnis complained of disenfranchisement and sectarian government with U.S. troops and without them. Governance and services were disastrous with and without American troops. Al Qaeda and other extremists carried out a regular series of low-level bombings and gruesome attacks when the U.S. troops were there and after they left. Relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish region were dangerously tense -- but not breaking into open war or secession -- both before and after.

Small wonder, then, that the most recent Gallup survey found that a year after the U.S. withdrawal, only 19 percent of Iraqis think security has gotten worse (42 percent think it's gotten better, 38 percent say it has stayed the same). Political stability? Thirty-seven percent think it's gotten worse, 20 percent better, and 41 percent about the same.

The real story of the American departure is how little it mattered. That's in part because the United States was never as necessary or wanted as Americans liked to believe. There's no question that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, for one, made himself indispensible to Iraqi politics through his tireless and effective diplomatic efforts. But as Charles De Gaulle famously (if apocryphally) said, the graveyards are full of indispensible men. Outside players can marginally affect faraway countries for a short time and through tremendous exertion, but their efforts are always refracted through local politics and rarely last.

Iraqis cared about their own politics, not Washington's. The reason Maliki wouldn't agree to a new Status of Forces Agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay longer is not that the Obama administration failed to try hard enough, it's that Iraqi public opinion overwhelmingly wanted the Americans to leave. Is it so hard to see that Maliki rejected American advice on steps toward reconciliation because he just didn't think that they served his interests? When U.S. troops pulled out, Iraqi politics continued along the same sorry path of dysfunction as during the long occupation. The forcing mechanism of withdrawal didn't compel political compromise as much as I had hoped, primarily because Maliki was too secure to see the need to make such compromises, with the Sunni Awakening groups on his payroll, his main Shiite rivals on their back foot, and a non-sectarian political alternative struggling to cohere. 

Here's what we should have taken away from the Iraq withdrawal: The U.S. departure just didn't change very much, and the United States keeping its troops there longer wouldn't have made much difference. But such a lesson is incompatible with our deeply ingrained strategic narcissism, and thus will not likely be learned. 

It's easy to understand why the U.S. debate tends to focus on American actions and concerns. There should be some real self-reflection over the launching of a disastrous war. And policy analysts will always obsess about troop levels and counterinsurgency strategies, because those were among the few variables Washington can actually control. But it's harder to fathom why the combination of the trauma of the Iraq war and the hope of the Arab Spring haven't forced Arab voices onto the agenda. That doesn't mean finding new Ahmed Chalabis, of course -- smooth-talking exiles claiming to speak on behalf of Arab citizens in their push for military intervention. The last two years should have taught us to be as deeply suspicious of any claims of a unified voice, as of predictions of easy military victories. The Chalabi phenomenon should be much more difficult in an information environment with millions of politically engaged Arabs online -- though the evolution of the debate over Syria, where many Syrians have called for military intervention, does suggest some more complicated dynamics.

Want to understand what went wrong in Iraq in all its complexity and chaos? The Internet is full of Iraqi academics, journalists, NGO leaders, and political activists with interesting perspectives on the invasion. It might also be useful to hear from the refugees, the displaced, and the families who lost everything. They will disagree with each other, have little patience for the pieties of American political debate, and refuse to fit comfortably into analytical boxes. On the 10th anniversary of the invasion, we should be hearing a lot more from them -- and a lot less from the former American officials and pundits who got it wrong the first time.


Marc Lynch

America’s March Madness Problem

We're Duke.

With March Madness rolling into view, the sports website Grantland ran a brilliant bracket of the most hated college basketball players in the last 30 years. It presented one bracket each for the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s ... and one just for Duke. It says something profound about the national loathing for my alma mater that Blue Devils could easily have filled an entire second region (Chris Collins, anyone?) -- which would beyond a shadow of a doubt produce the J.J. Redick-Christian Laettner final of everyone's dreams.

The visceral distaste for the Blue Devils seems to be one of the few things that unites Americans of all description. You can even buy "Duke Sucks: A Completely Evenhanded, Unbiased Investigation Into the Most Evil Team on the Planet." A few years back, Duke dominated an MSNBC poll on the most hated team in any sport, with 53 percent naming the Devils over every other team in every other sport in the world. Slate's got a slideshow of the 18 most hateable moments in Duke basketball history -- could any other team even come up with three?

Why all the hate? Sure, objectively, Duke appears to represent the best of college sports: graduating most of its players, while running a system built around individual freedom and creativity on offense anchored by hard-nosed, relentless teamwork on defense. But in popular mythology, Duke has become an avatar of an overly white, overrated, and overly praised team with an air of entitled superiority.

This national consensus is fascinating, in that it seems utterly blind to what the rest of the planet knows deeply and profoundly: In world politics, we're Duke. Americans like to think they are Butler, the scrappy unheralded Midwestern underdogs one shot away from a miracle. But let's be real. The United States is a global superpower, since 1990 the unipolar hegemon atop the global order. In the Middle East it is the imperial hub, a status quo power with deep security and military alliances with almost every regime and global sanctions against the few remaining "rogues." When the world looks at the United States, it doesn't see Butler. It sees Duke.

Despite their country's overwhelming global dominance, Americans have struggled to comprehend the depth and resilience of hostile attitudes and negative perceptions. In a 2008 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Americans rated restoring their country's global standing above any other national priority -- including combating terrorism and protecting jobs. The whole tenor of the "why do they hate us" punditry meme suggests just how much this global distaste upsets Americans. But if Americans want to understand the resilience of anti-Americanism, they could do worse than to examine their feelings about Duke.

Conventional explanations of anti-Dukism mirror those of anti-Americanism. Some see it as a natural outgrowth of dominance, attracting the incomprehension and resentment of the less fortunate. Everyone hates Mr. Big. But this is not satisfying. Sure, the Blue Devils have been dominant, with their four national championships, 15 Final Four appearances, 11 national players of the year, and the best winning percentage in tournament history. But other teams have been as dominant over as extended a period without inspiring such hatred: who loses sleep over Kentucky, Connecticut, North Carolina, or even UCLA?

Duke's dominance has also not been nearly as comprehensive as this account would suggest. Nor, one might argue, has America's. Both only rose to this position in 1990. During the Cold War, the United States was always checked by its superpower peer competitor, and Duke had memories of Mike Gminski. For the United States, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany within NATO, and the United Nations' blessing for the liberation of Kuwait established it as the sole global superpower. Duke emerged in the mid-1980s (morning in America!), but only reached the top by beating the mighty UNLV "Running Rebels" and the Kansas Jayhawks in the 1991 Final Four for its first championship, and then repeating the next year, along the way defeating Kentucky in perhaps the greatest college basketball game ever. This was peak Laettner, the foundational moment for anti-Dukism.

But the mid-1990s saw struggles for both. Bill Clinton's administration grappled with a radical Republican Congress at home, struggling to maintain the containment of Iraq and deal with the wars of the former Yugoslavia abroad. Duke's 1994 season collapsed when Coach K stepped down for emergency back surgery. Over the next few years, the world watched incredulously as Clinton was impeached over Monica Lewinsky and Duke somehow lost to Eastern Michigan. But none of these struggles affected now well-entrenched attitudes.

By early 2001, both were back with a vengeance: The United States sat comfortably atop an increasingly institutionalized liberal order and Duke had defeated Arizona for its third championship. But by the middle of the decade, like America bogged down in its Iraqi quagmire, Duke proved mortal indeed. In 2006, a good Duke team led by Redick lost a brutal matchup with LSU. In the following years, no surge could save Duke: It lost in 2007 to 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth, in 2008 to 7th-seeded West Virginia*, and in 2009 to Villanova. Like the United States under its new president, Duke surged back to win the national championship in 2010, but this return to the top -- like America's global approval ratings under Obama -- proved fleeting: Two years later, it somehow lost to Lehigh (Lehigh!) in the first round.

But anti-Dukism, like anti-Americanism, did not seem to rise and fall smoothly with actual policies. These shocking Duke losses generated gleeful celebration rather than any perceptible sympathy. Negative views of the United States have proven similarly resilient over the last decade, particularly in the Middle East, where a brief uptick following Obama's election quickly disappearing. This could be because the underlying structural realities never really changed: Duke may have struggled in the tournament, but continued to dominate the Atlantic Coast Conference, take top seeds in the NCAA tourney almost every year, and recruit a steady stream of top talent. The United States may have elected a new president, withdrawn from Iraq, changed its tone toward Islam, and supported transitions in Egypt, but it maintained its support for many repressive regimes, escalated drone strikes, didn't close Guantánamo, and maintained its close alliance with Israel.

But this explanation remains unsatisfying. A lot remained constant in Durham and Washington, but a lot changed too, with little evident impact on attitudes. Why did the United States get no credit from the Muslims of the world for intervening in Bosnia? Why does Duke get no credit for universally acknowledged good guys like Grant Hill and Elton Brand, while Laettner's legend lives forever? Political scientists Peter Katzenstein and Robert Keohane, in an influential book (to which, full disclosure, I contributed a chapter) had an answer: anti-Dukism, like anti-Americanism, is best understood as a form of cognitive bias.

When such a bias takes root, new information tends to be processed in such a way as to confirm existing beliefs. Rather than fluidly updating opinions based on new evidence, people who have internalized such a bias will tend to fit the new information to their narrative. Thus, when the United States withdraws support from Egypt's Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years it is not because it wants democracy but rather because it wants to preserve the military's power; when Washington then pushes the military to transfer power to an elected civilian government, it can't be because it supports democracy but rather must mean that it views the Muslim Brotherhood as the functional equivalent of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Something similar operates with anti-Dukism: Sure, many Duke players have a certain attitude that rubs people the wrong way, but Katzenstein and Keohane would suggest that it is the jersey rather than the player that sparks the outrage. When Seth Curry's older brother starred at Davidson, everyone raved about his courage and skill, but with a blue and white jersey on the younger brother becomes unbearably smug and manifestly overrated. Bobby Hurley at Indiana would be the epitome of hard-nosed hustle, but at Duke he was, well, Bobby Hurley.

The media likely plays a role in all this, of course. There's just the sheer ubiquity: American sports fans can no more avoid seeing Duke on television than Arabs could avoid seeing American troops in Iraq on Al-Jazeera. But it goes beyond that. Every year, ESPN audiences have to endure odes to the Cameron Crazies, Dick Vitale's ravings about the character of an (often white) Duke star, and endless paeans to the virtues of man-to-man defense and motion offense as some sort of uniquely Dukian innovation. Similarly, across the globe, foreign audiences have to endure lectures about American exceptionalism, global problems defined by how they affect American interests, and a public sphere saturated with American values. As Coach K once put it, "[W]e arouse passion [because] we're in a different world. I'm not sure we're in a world many people have been on, we just have to learn how to manage it.'' This is not the sort of self-reflection others find endearing. The casting of Duke and America as exceptional, and insistence that all recognize their universal appeal likely explains some portion of the backlash against both.

A careful study of anti-Dukism does not offer any clearly actionable guidance for American public diplomacy, alas. Sinking into mediocrity might reduce the venom, but hardly seems a price worth paying. Actively seeking to engage critics across multiple platforms is more likely to generate antagonism than win over hearts and minds.  Replacing Bush with Obama had no more lasting impact than did replacing J.J. Redick with Jon Scheyer. Obama may try to de-Dukify by making the United States a bit less brash, a bit more respectful, and well, a bit less white, but like Coach K he will still want America to win. The best Washington can do, then, is to simply ignore the haters and do the right thing -- which, in this case, means bringing the national championship back to Durham on April 8!

*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Duke lost in 2008 to 10th-seeded Providence. In fact, the Blue Devils fell to 7th-seeded West Virginia. Foreign Policy regrets the error. 

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