Friday, April 25, 2014
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From War of Choice to War Without End

WASHINGTON, DC – When the Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1815, the French diplomat Talleyrand is reported to have said of the Bourbons: “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Ten years after the start of the Iraq War, the question is whether anyone – Americans, Iraqis, Iranians, other Arab states – has learned anything from this terrible experience.

By the standards of modern warfare, America’s losses were much lower than they were in other recent conflicts – more than 12 times as many American soldiers were killed in Vietnam. Yet the Iraq war has scarred America in many ways. It was, as many have pointed out, a war of “choice,” a formulation rarely, if ever, used to describe America’s previous wars.

In a certain way, Iraq was the first think-tank war. To be sure, in the early 1960’s, members of President John F. Kennedy’s administration intellectualized war and debated the merits of strategies, including counterinsurgency. But there can be no comparison to the cerebral mud wrestling that played out in Washington over Iraq.

This partly reflected the existential threat that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, represented in so many people’s minds. The United States, it was argued, needed to begin to think about war differently. Former US diplomat George F. Kennan famously said that “democracy fights in anger.” But the new strategic doctrine of “preemption,” which many argued would define war-making in the twenty-first century, suggests that democracies also fight in dread.

Indeed, another reason for the war was America’s internal divisions over what it represents as a nation – its purpose and meaning to the rest of the world. The war did not resolve such questions. On the contrary, in some ways, the US emerged from Iraq even more divided than it was when it entered.

For Iraq, the complexities and contradictions of the war were even more pronounced. No one can visit Iraq and talk to Iraqis without coming away with the sense that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein was an important – even noble – accomplishment. His tyranny rivaled the worst of the twentieth century. Yet, in liberating Iraq, the US failed to ask how the tyrant gained power in the first place, and what, therefore, the challenges in replacing him would be.

For some, sectarianism in Iraq appeared like a summer storm, which quickly passed once the “surge” of US troops became American strategy in 2007. But even the colossal mistakes of “de-Baathification” (the dismissal of all Iraqi officials who had been members of Saddam’s Baath Party) and the decommissioning of the Iraqi army – measures so foolish that nobody now admits to ordering them – cannot fully explain Iraq’s continuing political crisis.

To believe that sectarian fighting started because of a foolish US decision, and ended because of a subsequent wise one, is to ignore the role of sectarianism in a country that straddles the Sunni and Shia worlds and the Turkic and Arab worlds. These divisions, obscured by Saddam’s totalitarianism, never went away.

Indeed, the Sunni-Shia divide exists in many parts of the Arab world. While Americans saw in Bahrain’s protests in 2011 a people’s democratic aspirations, no one in the region doubted that the real source of the troubles was a restive Shia majority (perhaps inspired by Iraq, or even, as Sunni Arabs claimed, Iran) trying to remove a Sunni monarchy.

Those who argue that the surge (and its close companion, new and improved “counterinsurgency”) overcame Iraq’s sectarian fault line suggest that Iraq’s ongoing political problems are the result of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s poor governance. If only he were more democratically minded, or would reach out to the Sunni community – perhaps offering another ministerial portfolio – suicide bombings of Shia religious festivals by Sunni extremist would end.

In fact, the Middle East – buffeted by the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, and the sectarian showdown in Syria – is unsure where to go next: liberal democracy and the rule of law, or Islamist rule? Yet, for the Sunni world, Iraq is the mistake that not only must not be repeated, but also must be reversed. Thus, Sunni Arabs and Shia Persians alike view Iraq as still up for grabs, a question rather than a country, a “great game” of the kind with which the world is very familiar.

The Saudis and other Sunni Arab states have shown little inclination to bring Iraq into the Arab fold, leaving it to find its own way in the world. These states contribute enormously – as they did in the 2010 national elections – to what they hope will be a Sunni restoration, when the Americans’ great error is corrected and the Arab world is made whole.

Ten years after Saddam’s removal, Iraq’s future remains where it always has been: in the hands of Iraqis, who will have to rise to the occasion. No one can create a stable political order for them; with the Americans gone, meddlesome Arab neighbors and anxious Iranians can only lose by dooming Iraq to remain a tinderbox.

As for Americans, we need to learn from what happened in Iraq, lest our hubris doom us to similar ventures. And, when it comes to the vision that sent us there, that means that we must also forget.

Read more from our "Ten Years in Iraq" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedMichael Cohen

    A few things we might learn:
    - Don't vote for a President because you'd to share a drink with him in a bar.
    - Being President requires some basic knowledge of history and geography
    - An administration that demands certain conclusions from the intelligence agency can eventually get the answers it wants.
    - The incompetence in the Bush administration extended throughout the government, remember General Franks and the non-entity that followed him, Wolfowitz, Perle, Bremmer, and a whole bunch of under-qualified over-paid private contractors that struck it rich in Iraq.

  2. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    A military strategy axiom is to not send one battalion to take two mountaintops. In 2001 and early 2002, the principal objective of American policy should have been to use its military force to secure its interests in Afghanistan and bring stability to a neighbor of Pakistan, an unstable rogue nuclear state.

    Instead of a clear-eyed strategic focus, the top leadership of America divided its land army between two wars in widely separate places with separate logistics tails while leaving the cupboard bare of strategic reserve to meet the inevitable contingencies which war brings.

    The incompetence of the strategic management of policy in the Middle East and South Asia was colossal. That the overall governing structure of America could have been so lacking will most likely leave a deep reservoir of skepticism about Washington's leadership both among the American public and the world community.

    As this essay indicates, there is still too much excuse and not enough admission of pure failure by the American foreign policy establishment.

  3. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

    Ambassador Hill's commentary is, as ever, cogent and illuminating. However, he could perhaps underscore the point that a handful of US analysts and officials (elected or otherwise) took the country to war on false pretenses against a despot the USA had supported and aided for a decade during which Iraq fought the Islamic Republic of Iran. Deceit as an instrument of policy could not have served the served the strategic interests of either the system, or its manager. Even if one leaves aside the massive death-and-destruction which devastated Iraq following the invasion is cast aside - as it is in much of the US strategic discourse - the erosion of America's moral authority as the leader and exemplar, and the denudation of its material substance, combined to make the fiery bowels of Iraq (and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan) a key element in the precipitation of transitional fluidity at the systemic level.

  4. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    Follow the money!

    Who became wealthy from the Iraq war? Who pressed for the war? QED.

    Why was Iraq not sectarian before Saddam? Why did it become so after the invasion? Who benefited?

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