love keeping score. We love lists, ranking presidents, and Top 10s in just
about every category. And we particularly love trying to figure out who won and
foreign policy, this has devolved into by now the well-established "Who
Lost What" game. And we've played it now for over half a century. Take
your pick: who lost China, Vietnam, Egypt, Ukraine, Syria, the war on terror,
and now Iraq. Part of this process, of course, is that we love beating up
whomever we peg responsible for putting up an L rather than a W -- Democrats,
Republicans, even ourselves.
ourselves? Because at the heart of the Who Lost What game is the elusive notion
that these prizes were ours to "win" in the first place. That's not
to say what America does (or doesn't do) is irrelevant to determining how we
fare in the world, or that we haven't made mistakes that have made matters
when it comes to influencing countries, small tribes or big powers, it's always
a matter of degree. And this is most certainly the case when we're trying to
reconstruct a country, build a nation, or assume responsibility for ending
sectarian, religious, and ethnic tensions in societies that lack enlightened
leadership and legitimate institutions -- especially when we don't have the
power, capacity, and partners to do it. And yet, faced with these challenges, we
all too often assume a power and capacity -- driven usually by arrogance and
ignorance -- that somehow we can bend the world or the forces of history to our
will. This isn't a defense of the Obama administration's risk-aversion as much
as it is a defense of common sense and reality.
said, the who lost -- or perhaps more precisely the who's losing -- Iraq debate
is no academic matter.
president may be getting ready to blow a whole lot of stuff up on the ground in
that country. And he's being encouraged by a lot of people who are trying to
guilt him into doing so to compensate, presumably, for what we failed to do
before. But while Obama's besieged with calls for airstrikes and T-LAMs to
break the back of the ISIS siege, he should remind himself of two things. He didn't
lose Iraq because it has never been ours to win. And he can't win it now. Here's
Iraq Was Unwinnable
Bush 43 vision for the country -- free, secure, violence-free, and stable with
Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis all getting along in a contentious yet real
democracy -- was always a fantasy. It denied what Iraq was and where it was. We
can heap as much blame on the Obama administration as we want. And they may
well deserve a fair share of it for not trying hard enough to secure an
agreement that would have allowed a residual U.S. presence and which might have
helped stabilize things. But it doesn't change the reality that demography and
geography made almost impossible the prospects of an Iraq made in America and
fashioned with a Hollywood happy ending.
invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a profound blunder that would set into motion a
series of events that contained much of the dysfunction that we see in Iraq today,
including the unintended rise of al Qaeda in Iraq. When you invade a country in
the heart of Arabdom with insufficient forces, unclear objectives, and a woeful
misunderstanding of that nation's politics, you aren't off to a good start.
Iraq invasion destroyed the country's institutions; triggered a major shift in
the balance of power in favor of the Shiites; alienated the Sunnis and made
them vulnerable to jihadi persuasions (even with the success of the 2007 surge);
and enhanced Iran's role and influence. It also left a ton of unfinished
business that the United States tried its best to take care over the next eight
so much of that -- creating a legitimate and sustainable contract between the
governed and those who govern; countering Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's
sectarian agenda; finding an equitable share for the Sunnis; getting a newly
self-confident and liberated Kurdish community integrated in the new Iraq; and checking
Iran's influence -- was simply beyond America's capacity. We didn't sign up for
nation-building, kept denying that's what we wanted to do, and in the end
stopped trying. And it was easy to see why.
in 2003, 2011, and today is a bridge too far. It was never going to be post-1945
Europe or Japan. It wasn't even the Balkans. Consider the fact that we occupied
Japan between 1945 and 1952 -- a militaristic nation, some of whose soldiers refused
to surrender until the 1970s -- and not a single American was killed in a
hostile action by Japanese during that entire period. In Iraq, we had no
entrance strategy and no exit strategy either. The foundation was rotten before
we arrived. And despite a good faith effort, the U.S. reconstruction job left a
foundation somewhat improved but still fundamentally unsound.
Blame Maliki first
trillion-dollar social science experiment -- to build a new Iraqi state on the
ruins of the old one -- failed only partly because of what we did or didn't do.
The main problem was the playing field itself: Iraq. The most central actor in
the current mess isn't Barack Obama or even George W. Bush, but Nouri al-Maliki,
a diehard Shiite triumphalist whose vision of the new Iraq had little to do
with a more broadminded future and everything to do with taking care of
business related to the past -- settling scores and gaining power. And that
meant pursuing a sectarian agenda at the expense of what we might have
considered a national one. The United States may have helped moderate Maliki's
worst impulses while troops were there in force, but how long were we
reasonably expected to stay in order to continue to baby sit him -- five, 10 years?
are driven by who they are and where they are. And Maliki is a Shiite looking
to right old wrongs. But now, extremist Sunni groups are determined to right
Maliki's new wrongs. Meanwhile, the Kurds understandably are determined to
ensure their interests are protected even at the expense of the Iraqi state.
And all of them operate in a neighborhood where Iran -- whose interests in Iraq
are not ours over the long-term -- plays a critical role. These forces of
geography, history, and sectarian identity were always going to be more
powerful and enduring than American civic lessons or financial and political
Syria: America's fault too?
only Obama acted in 2011 to arm the moderate opposition and in 2012 to enforce his
redline on chemical weapons, everything would have been different. The jihadists
would have been contained, ISIS relegated to the margins, and maybe even Assad
would have been shot crawling out of a drainage pipe (or at minimum, fled the
country, or cried "uncle"). What's happening in Syria and now Iraq is
a direct result of President Obama's refusal and failure to act in a timely and
effective manner and his abdication of moral and humanitarian responsibility to
only Cleopatra's nose would have been shorter, Pascal famously argued in his Pensées, the world would have been a
different place. Maybe. I get the criticism. But the upbeat notions of how the
United States might have influenced the situation in Syria sound pretty similar
to those that still linger Iraq, don't they?
are no rewind buttons on history, no way to disprove counterfactuals and
speculation about alternative realities. But it's a real stretch to imagine
that anything this risk-adverse administration would have been prepared to do
in 2011 or 2012 would have fundamentally changed the arc of either conflict.
Indeed, to do that, the Obama administration would have had to become, well...
the un-Obama administration, committing to a serious military and political strategy
that would have been sustained for months, even years, though probably not including
boots on the ground. I'm not sure any administration -- a Mitt Romney or Hillary
Clinton presidency -- in the wake of years of effort in Afghanistan and Iraq would
have been willing to do that either. And let's not forget that this is
something that Congress would have been unwilling to endorse.
course, nature then took its course: first, the Syrian civil war became a
natural breeding ground for ISIS; second, Iraq was a ripe host for the spread
of the contagion across the border. Brookings's Bruce Riedel, no sentimentalist on these
matters, recently argued that the Bush surge could not have destroyed Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi's empire; nor would have a U.S. residual force. "Only sustained
good and smart governance could kill it, and that was something post-Saddam
Hussein Iraq could not produce, with or without the United States," writes
didn't create the environment for ISIS's recent rampages in Iraq, the Iraqis
did. That hundreds -- perhaps a few thousand armed men -- could subdue a city
of 1.7 million people is a stunning testament to just how empty a shell the
Iraqi state really is, to how Maliki coup-proofed the army at the expense of
its effectiveness, and to the reality that Sunnis and Kurds weren't going to
sacrifice much to keep Maliki's Iraq afloat.
administration owes the foreign policy piper plenty, for many things. And yes,
maybe Obama's rush for the exits in 2011 accelerated the downward arc of
events. But the primary responsibility for the current mess lies elsewhere: with
a previous administration that badly and tragically overreached in an effort to
create a new Iraq; an Iraqi government and sectarian political system far more
committed to getting even with other sectarian groups at the expense of the
nation state; and neighbors determined to ensure their own interests take precedence
what you can, Mr. President, to break the momentum of the ISIS attacks; press
Maliki to be a more inclusive leader; and up the support for Syria's opposition
-- as you promised to do. But don't let anyone guilt or shame you into thinking
you can save, win, or redeem these sad and forlorn Arab lands. Iraq was always
a trap for America. It remains so to this day.