The Wrong Iraq Question

To lose something one has to have it in the first place. (It is pretty basic logic).

Iraq US FlagAs is in vogue these days in GOP circles, John Hinderaker asks Who Lost Iraq? And, of course, he answers:  the Obama administration.  Hinderaker’s evidence is an excerpt from Lindsey Graham talking to Hugh Hewitt and I shall leave that alone and allow the reader to assess as they see fit.

What strikes me, however, about the question, i.e., “who lost Iraq?” is that it assumes facts not in evidence i.e., that we “had Iraq” in the first place.  I would assume this means that at some point Iraq had a stable, sustainable government and was a firm long-term ally of the US.  None of this was ever the case, so any narrative that assumes this is to be true is based on a fallacious premise.  Certainly any notion that the emergence of ISIL could have been forestalled by some act of will by the Obama administration is absurd.

I am a penitent man when it comes to the Iraq War:  a supporter who rapidly understood the folly of assuming that the Bush administration knew what they were doing.   It became rapidly clear that the Bush administration did not understand, nor did it care to understand, the fragile nature of the Iraqi state going into the war nor did they understand the problems associated with the sacking of Baghdad and the dissolution of the army.  Indeed, I will always consider it a professional failing that the folly of the policy was not immediately obvious.  As powerful as the United States military is, force alone cannot impose a stable, functional state by simply removing a dictator and pretending like that is all that needs to be done (which is largely what people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld asserted and how they pursued the policy).

Ultimately it is extremely disturbing that almost all of the Republican candidates and their supporters are in utter denial about what the Iraq War actually created.  Further, they seem to think that the key lesson was that we did not use enough force or, at a minimum, did not occupy Iraq long enough.  Iraq was a massive foreign policy blunder and any analysis of the rise of ISIL has to start with the invasion and ouster of Saddam and the utterly inept post-invasion effort to establish a new Iraqi state.  An excellent place to start reading about this era is Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory.

As Daniel Larison pointed out years ago, pointing to the Surge is does not absolve the Bush administration:  By Its Own Standards, The “Surge” Failed.

The United States broke the Iraqi state and did not have a plan to fix it (and really, the notion that it could fix it was highly problematic to begin with).  Any future US foreign policy has to keep such facts in mind (and I am looking at you, too, Mrs. Clinton).

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Middle East, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    “There’s been a certain amount of pop sociology in America … that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq’s always been very secular.”
    ~Willaim Kristol, April 4th, 2003

    This was the problem. Members of the Bush administration didn’t have a clue about the history of the region.
    When I worked for the DIA in the early 70 s I wrote a paper predicting that Yugoslavia would fall apart when Tito died. Of course I was right. I could have written the same paper about Iraq – it was and still is an artificial country not unlike the old Yugoslavia. This was all so predictable.

  2. Andy says:

    Humpty (Iraq) was unbalanced and teetering on the wall when we decided to push him over. All the Kings Horses and All the Kings Men (The US, the international community, the Iraqi people) cannot put Humpty together again. “Iraq” was a great political experiment, but it failed and cannot be reconstituted.

    So the real problem is that our leaders (and know-nothings like Hinderaker) cannot accept this basic fact.

  3. James Pearce says:

    What strikes me, however, about the question, i.e., “who lost Iraq?” is that it assumes facts not in evidence i.e., that we “had Iraq” in the first place.

    Or, the way I took it, is that it assumes that “Iraq” is not a place, with people and things and culture, but rather a concept, ie, the battleground for the GWOT or what have you.

    If you’re unconcerned about Iraq the place, but incredibly concerned about Iraq the concept then the question of “who lost Iraq” has a different meaning. Understood that way, Hinderaker’s conclusion has a certain internal logic to it.

    Hinderaker doesn’t say what he thinks 18,000 residual US troops could do in “Iraq the place,” but he knows what they’ll do for Iraq the concept: keep it going. So when Obama gave up on whatever mission these troops were supposed to fulfill, he did give up on Iraq.

    If Iraq is understood to be a concept and not a place.

  4. JohnMcC says:

    Two remarks: The first is that the refrain ‘who lost —— ‘ is a sad and shopworn theme that dates back to the earliest days of the cold war. Pres Truman was pilloried for ‘losing’ eastern europe, china and God knows what else after the Yalta agreement in which the victorious WW2 allies divided their spheres of control in ’45. That neoconservatives are singing from that songbook is simply proof that they have not had a new idea since Sen Joe McCarthy had a list of 400 communists in the state dept. Pitiful. Just pitiful, that anyone takes such crap seriously.

    And 2d, we were referred to this ‘Powerline’ piece with it’s lengthy quote from Sen Graham in the thread that followed Mr Mataconis’ post on Friday, “Jeb Bush is Willfully Blind to the Truth About the Iraq War”. A right wing visitor linked to it and stimulated me to spend an hour or two (what the hell, I’m retired and it was a wet afternoon in FL) looking here and there into the reporting of the Status of Forces Agreement and the maneuvering that led to the withdrawal of US Troops. That thread is still on the ‘front page’ of OTB and anyone who wishes to read Sen Graham’s remarks and then look into their veracity will discover (as I summed up my response) that “Sen Graham has had some event in his life that has affected his memory.”

  5. @James Pearce: I kind of get what you are saying, but only in part.

    And to make your statement make sense you have to have changed the question from “who lost Iraq?” to “who gave up on Iraq?”–which is a very different issue.

    You position also seems to buy into the notion that more will would have resulted in a better outcome, which I think is an incorrect position (but, again, I may be missing your point).

  6. James Pearce says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    You position also seems to buy into the notion that more will would have resulted in a better outcome, which I think is an incorrect position

    That’s not my position, so much as I understood it to be Hinderaker’s. I don’t think more troops would have solved any problems in Iraq, but it would have kept the enterprise going. Which is kind of what the hawks wanted, to keep the whole thing going in hopes of a better outcome.

    Short version:

    Who gave up on Iraq? The American people, who elected Obama to “give up” for us.

    Who “lost” Iraq? The war’s architects and supporters. (Seriously, 18,000 residual troops…to do what?)

  7. Scott says:

    When your assumptions and paradigms going into war are incorrect, then you will conduct that war incorrectly. Iraq assumptions were that the country was secular but oppressed under Saddam and that Iraq was a threat to the US. Neither were true. We had Iraq under our thumb prior to our invasion and Saddam was going anywhere.

    This is similar to Vietnam (which some of the same arguments go on about who lost that one). We went into that under the false paradign of the domino theory and monolithic communism. We really just inserted ourselves into a combination of war of national liberation and a civil war. Iraq is the same mess.

    It is kind of tangential but I think of this quote from “The Great Gatsby” when I think of our foreign policy over the years:

    “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made . . . .”

    The US is like Tom and Daisy.

  8. Slugger says:

    The statements by Mr. Hinderaker are not intend to advance a rational discussion of preserving the military victory proclaimed in March of 2003. To hold on to the military gains would have required some efforts. For example, we could have stationed an occupation and did, but by 2007 a force of 120,000 troops was insufficient hence the surge. We could have installed a very powerful central government which would have suppressed dissidents with a secret police and attacks on its own people, but we already tried that road, and these dictators inevitably get too big for their britches and have to be taken down. Alternatively, we could have won the hearts and minds of the Iraqis, but this seems unlikely in view of several hundred thousand killed by US arms, millions turned into refugees, and their cities bombed into shambles. I welcome other plausible scenarios.
    Mr. Hinderaker wants us to be afraid, very afraid, Obama bad, Obama very bad, ISIS is coming to cut off your head with Ebola knives!!!

  9. JohnMcC says:

    @Slugger: “…we could have installed a very powerful central government which would have suppressed dissidents with a secret police and attacks on it’s own people, but we already tried that road…”

    Worked so well in Iran, eh?

  10. An Interested Party says:

    The first mistake anyone could ever make regarding this subject is taking John Hinderaker seriously…I mean, those bozos at Powerline, much like William Kristol, have never been right about anything…

  11. gVOR08 says:

    rapidly understood the folly of assuming that the Bush administration knew what they were doing.

    And a couple days ago I described Doug as a master of understatement.

    James, what evidence is there that Jeb! Bush? understands anything better than his brother?

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    @gVOR08: I’ll answer that, none! If anything the “smarter” brother is looking to be even dumber.

  13. @James Pearce: I guess that “gave up” and “lost” are sufficiently different that I think you are giving Hinderaker too much credit.

  14. @gVOR08:

    James, what evidence is there that Jeb! Bush? understands anything better than his brother?

    Indeed. It is truly remarkable to me that he does not have a better answer to the Iraq question.

  15. stonetools says:

    Trump on Iraq:

    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said that the United States should send ground troops into Iraq to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and use funds from seized oil fields to pay for veteran’s services.

    “You go and knock the hell out of the oil, take back the oil,” he said on Sunday during an interview with Meet the Press. “We’re going to have so much money.”

    Earlier statement : “I’m not a fan of Saaddam. But he ran the place.”

    You can’t even parody this guy.

  16. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @James Pearce: Insightful comment. Indeed your thoughts are probably at the root of John McCain’s comment during his run that he was committed to occupying Iraq for “a thousand years, if necessary,” as I recall the quote.

  17. James Pearce says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I guess that “gave up” and “lost” are sufficiently different that I think you are giving Hinderaker too much credit.

    Nah, not giving him any credit. He wants to trace the “losing” of Iraq to a troop level decision in 2011 for the sole purpose of laying the entirety of blame on the current administration and absolving the previous one.

  18. Hal_10000 says:

    I think the Iraq project *could* have succeeded, maybe. But it became obvious by 2004 that the Bush people had no fricking clue what they were doing. They went in with way too few troops (against the advice of the State Department and the Pentagon) so that Rummy could prove his crackpot theories on military force. They appointed idiots to run Iraq and cronies for the reconstruction. The didn’t have the equivalent or a Marshall Plan at all.

    Maybe nothing would have worked. But the plan — or lack thereof — wouldn’t have worked even under ideal conditions.

    I didn’t really understand until 2006 when Bush, after losing the election, finally decided we needed a surge of troops. This was political, from the start. It was part of the neocon horse manure of national greatness. They decided to knock over Saddam to show we could do it and … well, what happened afterward is not their concern.

  19. Barry says:

    @James Pearce: “That’s not my position, so much as I understood it to be Hinderaker’s. I don’t think more troops would have solved any problems in Iraq, but it would have kept the enterprise going. Which is kind of what the hawks wanted, to keep the whole thing going in hopes of a better outcome.”

    You’re being imprecise. What Hindraker and every one of those guys wanted was to keep the *war* going. They are for war in virtually all cases; the only exceptions would be when a Democratic President might benefit. And even then their starting position is ‘war – heck yeah!’.

  20. Barry says:

    @Slugger: “We could have installed a very powerful central government which would have suppressed dissidents with a secret police and attacks on its own people”

    Not even that, because we smashed things so thoroughly that ‘installing a very powerful central government’ was beyond our abilities. Unless that would be US military dictatorship, which we in fact tried. It couldn’t even ‘supress dissent’, because it didn’t know what it was doing.

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Hal_10000:

    I think the Iraq project *could* have succeeded, maybe.

    The folly of the idea that we would ever have succeeded with the Iraq project is in direct relation to the amount of money we were willing to invest in it. Remember Cheney (?) saying the Iraqi’s would pay for the war? The war that would cost at most $60 billion?

    I was against it* from the beginning for a lot of reasons but the utter inanity of comments like those were not the least of them.

    * I was against the invasion of Afghanistan too. Still waiting for America to wake up to the realization that that too was a complete waste of time, money, and lives.

  22. gVOR08 says:

    @Hal_10000:

    They decided to knock over Saddam to show we could do it

    I’ve read that this is what the military assumed to be the goal, to knock around one of the three “axis of evil” countries to teach the others a lesson. I fear we did, that they’ll be left alone if they have nukes. Which makes the Iran deal all the more remarkable. But this motive was an assumption by the military. The administration never came up with a credible reason for invading. It wasn’t the bad intelligence on WMDs, that was cooked to justify a decision already made. Also after the fact were bringing democracy to the ME and women’s rights. The stuff about W avenging Saddam’s supposed plot to kill his daddy and wanting to show he was better than daddy sounds like silly psychobabble.

    In the absence of a credible stated reason, I have to assume we invaded because we were too stupid to find any other way to end the oil embargo. Nobody was making any money off oil sitting in the ground.

  23. grumpy realist says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: What he’s saying is that from the viewpoint of people like Hindraker, whether Iraq ever settled down to a quasi-democracy with a reasonable government and a decent economy was only a secondary issue. What was important was to keep the myth of American success going, at no matter what cost. The landscape in the mind is more important than that in reality, for these people.

    That’s why they’re so pissed at President Obama. He was making strategy in light of reality, not the Tinker Bell landscape in their heads.

  24. gVOR08 says:

    @grumpy realist: The more of this I see, the more I feel the underlying basis of conservatism is deontology. The belief that we must do the right thing, independent of predictable consequences. Fighting in Iraq = fighting terrorism = the right thing, therefore we must do it.

    (The right thing within a weird moral system. A system in which causing the deaths of at least 100,000 Iraqis is OK if you meant to do the right thing. The “natural order” figures prominently in dealing with brown heathens.)