Is The Iraq War To Blame For Iraq’s Current Crisis?
Recent events in Iraq have opened up old domestic political arguments in the United States.
Not surprisingly, the ongoing crisis in Iraq has led to a resurrection of the old political debates on the Iraq War that, for the most part, had faded away after President Obama took office and oversaw the final withdrawal of American troops from the country. Those who supported the Iraq War have argued, as Vice-President Cheney and his daughter Liz do in an Op-Ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, that the advances of ISIS/ISIL are due largely to President Obama’s own failures, such as failing to keep a residual military force in Iraq after December 2011. I’ve already discussed how utterly absurd this argument is, but it’s one that has gained quick traction on the right, in no small part because it tends to push back on the argument that many on the other side of this issue are making, namely that it was the Iraq War itself, and the manner in which the Bush Administration conducted it, that set in motion the events that have led to the present situation on the ground in Iraq, a situation that seems unlikely to end well regardless of whether or not ISIS/ISIL is ultimately successful militarily.
Gordon Adams summarizes the basic argument of the Iraq War opponents:
The story of Iraq is a microcosm of American experience intruding in the security affairs of other countries and being humbled. It started more than 100 years ago, when we invaded the Philippines, spent years there, and left behind a country that remains insecure to this day. In the 1930s and beyond, we provided security and armed and trained a Nicaraguan military that became a dictatorship and remains troubled to this day. From early in the last century to the 1990s, U.S. forces imposed order in Haiti, which remains a basket case.
The Iraq tale is important. First, the Bush administration invaded the country and threw out its existing government. Bad mistake. Good or evil, it was their government, and an ugly form of order prevailed. The Coalition Provisional Authority, Bush’s steward for Iraq, compounded the error by disbanding the Iraqi military without a proper demobilization and cantonment of their arms. And then the CPA disbanded a substantial portion of the government, chasing the Baathists out of their bureaucratic posts. Then the insurgency and the Sunni-Shiite sectarian war — two prospects no one in the administration seemed to have anticipated — took over and gave the Americans a run for their money.
The Bush administration had not anticipated the need for an assistance program — either for security, the economy, or the Iraqi government. So we didn’t have one in place. We ran around for several years stitching one together. Initially, it had a lot of economic, infrastructure, or social development components, but as the insurgency grew, we re-jiggered the program to focus on security. And because we were “at war,” we gave the lion’s share of the assistance money and responsibility to the U.S. military.
The U.S. military worked the security issue hard. They spent those $25 billion, and doubtless more, training, exercising, and equipping an Iraqi military we had to rebuild virtually from scratch. That was clearly not a success: Despite their expensive training, four divisions disappeared from northern Iraq in the face of, at the most, a couple of thousand insurgents. Kind of like the South Vietnamese military we had heavily trained, exercised, and equipped. Now the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is ending up with the ammo, Humvees, trucks, front-end loaders, and guns that we so generously — and expensively — left behind.
What wasn’t left behind was the kind of regime that could reverse this failure. This is the hard part. What really matters in security is not the strength of the troops, but political leadership and effective governance. A corrupt, inefficient, ineffective, divisive, unresponsive regime cannot credibly provide security, except by cruel dictatorship, as Saddam Hussein showed.
But we lack the wisdom and capacity to build a different kind of regime. And we certainly blew it in Iraq by leaving Nouri al-Maliki, a would-be sectarian strongman, in charge. We bought some quietus by paying off Sunnis in the “surge,” but once Maliki was in charge, that subsidy stopped, as could have been predicted, opening up the door to renewed insurgency.
At least on the surface, Adams makes a persuasive argument. Had the United States not invaded in 2003 it is likely that Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party would likely still be in control of Iraq, and the ethnic divisions that are tearing the country apart, and which tore it apart in the years after the invasion, would have remain repressed. Additionally, no Iraq War means no al Qaeda sympathizers in Iraq given the fact that those groups were drawn to the country after the invasion for the primary purpose of fomenting chaos and attacking Americans. No Iraq War may also have meant that there would not have been an Arab Spring in 2011, or at least that it would have unfolded very differently. It’s possible, of course, that protests like the ones we saw throughout the Arab world would have erupted even without the downfall of Saddam — although it’s worth noting that, at the time, many conservatives claimed that it was Bush’s war that ‘lit the fires of democracy’ across the Arab world – but that’s an alternate history that we can really only guess at. At the very least, though, it seems quite likely that, without an Iraq War, the Iraq of 2011 would have been stronger and more stable than the regime of Nouri al-Maliki and that the threat posted by ISIS/ISIL and its terrorist allies would not exist.
America would certainly be a far different place had the Iraq War not taken place. Most immediately, of course, we would have avoided the loss of nearly 4,500 soldiers, the injury of tens of thousands of others, and the by some estimates trillions of dollars spent to overthrow a regime that, in hindsight, was no threat to the United States and then stabilize the nation we had thrown into chaos by doing so. Politically, the lack of a strong anti-war movement in the Democratic Party very well would have undercut the efforts of Barack Obama and other Democrats to blunt the rise of Hillary Clinton to the White House and Republicans in 2008 would have likely turned to someone such as Mitt Romney as their nominee rather than a war veteran, and strong supporter of the Iraq War such as John McCain. On the foreign front, we would have been able to spend more time concentrating our resources on the fight against al Qaeda, and we would have been aided in that effort by the fact that our international reputation would not have been utterly destroyed in the manner that the Bush Administration managed to do with the Iraq War. As with the future of the Middle East, it’s not easy to weave an alternative history for the United States, but one can hardly argue with much credibility that we would have been worse off if we had not invaded Iraq in 2003 than we are today.
Given all of that, I think it’s not only perfectly fair, but perfectly appropriate to note the relationship between the current situation in Iraq and the actions that we took more than a decade ago. Ignoring the relationship, as many on the right seem to be eager to do, is obviously nothing more than political expediency since there is obviously some relationship between the two. Indeed, it seems apparent to me that conservatives who are pushing back on this linkage argument have already conceded the point that the Iraq War is at least partly responsible for what’s going on today by the fact that they are trying to discredit it by pointing not to the policies that President Bush implemented, but to the policies that his successor implemented. However, if you’re arguing that something President Obama did or didn’t do is playing a role in what’s happening today, then it seems axiomatic that the massive war that we conducted in Iraq must also have some connection as well. In fact, its apparent that if there is any single event that could be said to be most responsible for the political instability that ISIS/ISIL is exploiting today, it is the Iraq War.
Of course, blaming one single event for what’s happening today would be just as mistaken as claiming that something as major as a war that toppled a dictator who had ruled for decades has no connection at all to current events. Obviously, there are a number of other factors at play here at role from the policies that have been implemented by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the role that the Syrian Civil War, and the Iraqi governments decision to side with Iran and the Assad regime in that conflict. And, yes, American policies have also contributed to the current state of affairs as well. However, if there is one event that can be said to be the equivalent of the butterfly flapping its wings, it is the war itself, which set in motion a course of events that has brought us to the present day. As Adams notes in the linked article, we’ve seen this happen before in Vietnam so we shouldn’t be surprised to see it happen again. Hopefully, this time we’ll learn the lesson that interventionism and nation building are, more often than not, the road to failure and a far more complicated world than the one that existed beforehand.