Two Iraq Wars

Rusty Shackleford argues that discussions about the Iraq War get clouded with emotional and political baggage surrounding the decision to invade in 2003 and that we can gain clarity by speaking of two Iraq Wars: the successful invasion to topple Saddam’s regime and the post-Saddam nation-building phase.

The post-invasion period subjected Iraqis to the tyranny of chaos. The vacuum left by the Baathist police state was filled by yet another tyranny: the tyranny of Sunni Islamists, like al Qaeda; and the tyranny of Shia Islamists, like those following Muqtada al Sadr. This is when the Second Iraq War started.

The first war was against Iraq, a nation-state. The second war is against terrorists and Islamist rebels.

[…]

The First Iraq War may have been “optional”, as many of the critics say; but the Second Iraq war is not. We must win it. The price of victory may be high, but the price of defeat is higher.

The theory isn’t particularly novel, even if the nomenclature is. Indeed, I’ve argued for years that we achieved the “regime change” part of the mission (and thus the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner flown behind President Bush in his flight-suited address aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln was apt) and have failed at the postwar counterinsurgency and stability operations.

Fundamentally, I agree with the underlying premise: Whether the 2003 invasion was a good idea has little bearing on what we need to do in Iraq now. One can, as my colleague Dave Schuler did, oppose the invasion but now think we need to clean up the mess. Conversely, one can have supported the invasion, as Andrew Sullivan and others did, and now think we should cut our losses.

Still, I’ve got some quibbles with Rusty’s argument. First, the First Iraq War was the 1990-91 Desert Shield/Desert Storm operation, not the 2003 invasion. Second, while I agree that Islamists are a major part of the anti-government forces we’re fighting against in Iraq, most of the resistance is motivated by nationalism, sectarianism, and other old-fashioned political goals. Most are fighting for the right to govern themselves, not to recreate the Caliphate or for the glory of a Greater Shia empire.

Finally, it’s rather disingenuous to separate the current operation from the 2003 invasion as if they’re “two wars.” After all, the second was only necessary because of the first. Further, the mission we’re trying to achieve in the second was part of the political objectives of the first. Indeed, if we’re looking for a rhetorical means of separating the two phases, it’s likely more useful to call the regime change operation “The Second Iraq War” and the current mission “postwar occupation.” Zell Miller might object, of course, but it’s really more accurate than calling it a second (or third) war.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    Most are fighting for the right to govern themselves, not to recreate the Caliphate or for the glory of a Greater Shia empire.

    Ironically, while most insurgents are exactly as you describe, the dominant party (Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council) explicitly calls for rule by Ayatollahs and an Islamic theocracy to be allied with Iran to battle Sunni dominance in the Middle East. And of course, we’re on their side…

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    That’s why I’ve been arguing that we should be very cautious about allying ourselves too closely with Maliki rather than with the Iraqi people or the Iraqi national government more generally.

    This seems as good as any a time as any for me to ask the question I’ve been asking for the last couple of years. How, outside of maintaining a substantial troop commitment to Iraq until it’s more stable than it is now (a position being held by Sens. Obama, Clinton, and McCain so it’s not a partisan position), can we secure U. S. interests in Iraq and in the region?

    The answers I’ve generally received are either that a) we have no interests in the region (arrant nonsense); or b) we can’t but should remove our troops anyway; or c) we can’t and, consequently, we should stay in Iraq.

  3. arky says:

    >>achieved the “regime change” part of the mission (and thus the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner flown behind President Bush in his flight-suited address aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln was apt)

    I always assumed that the “Mission Accomplished” banner was a recognition that the ship and crew had finished their deployment, and thus, THEIR mission. They were assigned the mission of deploying to the area in support of operations, and once relieved were relieved to return to port, refit, and prepare to accomplish their next mission.

    The whole “Mission Accomplished” canard continues to rankle me. No one can say they ever accomplished a mission, apparently, unless there is Peace on Earth. No Seal Team mission was ever accomplished, no bombing mission, no resupply mission, or medevac mission can be said to be accomplished, unless everyone agrees that the entire military can return to garrison and…, what? Play go fish?

  4. rotwang says:

    Dr. Shackleford’s analysis is overcomplicated by his need to cast the US as the “good guys.” That requires that some party — even if it’s the majority demographic of Iraqi citizens — be tagged as “terrorists” who wish to impose “tyranny”…even if it’s the tyranny of self-rule and national sovereignty.

    The whole thing is much easier to conceptualize, once you scrap the arbitrary good/evil framework.

    In the first phase of the war, the US fought the Iraqi government. In this new phase of the war, we’re fighting the Iraqi people.

    Or, if you want to go to the more granular view, we’re supporting one Iranian-backed political bloc against a more popular Iranian-backed political bloc. Which makes us participants in the civil war that no one admits is underway.

    I don’t think Rusty will ever embrace the simple, clarifying shorthand of “propping up an unpopular puppet government,” but it’s hard not to recognize our tried-and-true Cold War MO at work here.

  5. Michael says:

    How, outside of maintaining a substantial troop commitment to Iraq until it’s more stable than it is now, can we secure U. S. interests in Iraq and in the region?

    We could always play nice with other countries in the region, such as, Iran. It probably won’t be easy, we’ve built decades of animosity among the Iranian people, but it would be the cheapest way. If we can work with Iran, then we can work with Syria too by extension.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    we’re fighting the Iraqi people

    Interesting. Can you substantiate that?

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    We could always play nice with other countries in the region, such as, Iran.

    Could you flesh that out a little, please?

  8. Hal says:

    Dr. Shackleford’s analysis is overcomplicated by his need to cast the US as the “good guys.”

    This, I believe is the nub of the issue. In all the arguments to stay, including arguments of the “pottery barn” form, the underlying premise is that there’s something evil we need to fight and we’re the good guys in this, despite whatever may have come before.

    I don’t think Rusty will ever embrace the simple, clarifying shorthand of “propping up an unpopular puppet government,” but it’s hard not to recognize our tried-and-true Cold War MO at work here.

    Precisely. After having caused a huge mess, the hubris is that we’re not causing an even bigger mess, or simply continuing the same magnitude of mess that we started with. If we witness a motorcycle gang destroy a Pottery Barn store, killing a large percentage of the staff, no one in their right mind would think that the correct and moral thing to do is put the motorcycle gang in charge of cleaning up the mess. At a minimum, you’d make sure that they’d be paying for the damage that they caused, but in no way would anyone even consider that they now are responsible for cleaning it up, much less be in charge of the clean up.

    But here we are, after 5 years of failed plan after failed plan, refereeing a horrific civil war, and have the audacity to say things will only get worse if we leave.

    Stunning, the hubris that is required to believe this.

    Even more hilarious in the funny-sad kind of way is the idea that we’re going to end up with another strong man who’s friendly to us. Meaning that we just created a whole lot of suffering to end up in pretty much the exact same place we were in the 1980’s when Rumsfeld was BFF with Saddam. I guess we’ll eventually have to go in and overthrow them when they get too uppity as well. Maybe it’ll be even easier than the 3 week “first Iraq war” in that we’ll already have our fortress embassy and permanent bases already there.

  9. Hal says:

    Interesting. Can you substantiate that?

    Dave, who the heck do you think we’re fighting? What exactly do you think an insurgency is populated by?

  10. […] discussion at Outside the Beltway (Two Iraq Wars). Basically Joyner accepts the notion that it is a mistake to conflate two war which led to the […]

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    An insurgency is populated by some of the people, Hal. I think we’re fighting some of the Iraqi people. I think the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people just want things to be peaceful. How about you?

  12. Michael says:

    Could you flesh that out a little, please?

    Iran isn’t ideologically opposed to the United States, despite whatever rhetoric is coming out of Ahmadinejad. We’ve been allies of the Iranians in the past, and there’s no reason why we can’t be in the future. When it comes to Al Qaeda, Iran’s position is very much in line with our own. When it comes to a stable Iraq, Iran’s position if very much in line with our own.

    I think their support for anti-Israeli groups is more a factor of the popularity of that position in the region, than any real animosity to Israel, or love for Palestine. Right now there are 2 ways to gain power in the Middle East, either you side with the US and get money and weapons from us, or you oppose the US and get support of the populations who hate the US for giving money and weapons to other people. Since Iran doesn’t have the option for #1, they go with #2. But #1 is much easier and more lucrative, so I think given the opportunity, they’ll warm to that choice.

  13. […] Commentary: Speaking of Two Wars in Iraq […]

  14. Hal says:

    I think the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people just want things to be peaceful. How about you?

    Dave, you know full well that’s not the point. Of course the majority want things to be peaceful. However, according to a March 2008 opinion poll of Iraqis, the majority opposes the presence of the US occupation, is making the problem worse, and that attacks on US forces are acceptable.

    Now, faced with that, what the heck do you think is going on in there, Dave? I mean, sure, the majority wants peace. But they also think killing US troops is OK, too.

  15. Hal says:

    Oh, I also forgot to point out that the majority of Iraqis feel that if the US left, things would get better.

    Odd, isn’t it.

  16. mannning says:

    The Iraqi Wars

    My framework for our engagements with the Iraqi has always been that we are using a phased approach:
    Phase I: the First Gulf War; which I thought was terminated far too soon,
    Phase II: the Second Gulf War–Deposing Saddam; and
    Phase III: Occupation/Nation-Building/Insurgency, where we are now.

    With about 100 tribal cats in a bag to play with, it is no wonder that Phase III has been a disaster so far, but lately it has shown some signs of improvement, if one can believe the reporting.

    Therein lies my main gripe. Few people on this planet have a clear picture of what is going on in Iraq, how well the place is settling down, or what needs to be done. The MSM have largely ignored the big picture in favor of reporting bombings and other bloody events. The number of reporters actually in the field seems to have gone far down lately, probably due to the threat of being killed and the disinterest of the MSM itself in providing accurate overviews not reflecting their preconceived opinions.

    Those who were opposed to IW-PI, and IW-PII are equally opposed to IW-PIII. Nothing new here, except the kind of arguments posed by them to make us leave Iraq altogether. These stalwarts of democracy and freedom use every negative aspect they can find, aided by the MSM and its sparse reporting, to try to torpedo our efforts. What comes out very clearly is that those that are pacifists will rise to the top every day, bouyed by the bad news coming out of Iraq.

    One can speculate on the opinions of the Iraqi people, and even take in their responses to polls, which, in my opinion are biased as hell. Who wouldn’t want peace? Who wouldn’t want the American troops to go home? But, did they ask under what conditions?

    We have Obama touting pullout. We have Clinton touting pullout. Only McCain wants to stand firm and finish the job. Good for him!

  17. vnjagvet says:

    I am with Manning on this.

    Hal and others like him are wedded to a result (US out of Iraq) and rely on evidence coming from the other side and from a press that has been (at best)less than objective.

    We’ll see how that plays out as more varied views of the evidence come out.

    I am inclined to view that McCain’s take on the overall situation will prevail. May be wishful thinking on my part, but I hope I am right.

  18. vnjagvet says:

    “inclined to the view”

  19. Hal says:

    from a press that has been (at best)less than objective.

    ROFLMAO. The press can’t even leave the Green Zone without getting killed or kidnapped.

    It’s pretty hilarious to see people blaming the press. It really is simply nothing but the last gasp of a desperate person.

  20. Steve in wNY says:

    Hal,

    Please try reading Michael Yon and Michael Totten before making such a laughably incorrect statement about the press and the Green Zone.

  21. mannning says:

    It is gratifying to see a pacifist sieze upon the delineation of the MSM as totally biased to be the last gasp! Not really! The MSM is totally biased, of course, but that is not the essential thing. There are coattailers around that think they know more than anyone else about the goings on in Iraq, when they don’t, and that is the essential thing. All they have is their reliance on cowardly retreat and an infinite capacity for lying and twisting every situation into their storyline. Rather disgusting people to be around.

  22. Hal says:

    before making such a laughably incorrect statement about the press and the Green Zone.

    It’s actually laughable to use Totten and Yon as the basis of your argument.

    Yes, I’m sure that in actual fact, everything is f*cking great and that in reality it’s really a pleasure palace that Kubla Khan did decree.

    Geebus, do you people actually think about the logical conclusions of your assertions or is it just a mish mash of whatever you think will make the point you’re trying to make?

    Oh, and btw, I do read both, and afaik, Totten hasn’t been in Iraq for over 2 years. And even then, he was only there for a short time and before all the real hell started breaking loose in Samarra, and if I’m not mistaken spent almost all his time in Kurdistan.

    So using his experiences as a benchmark for your standards is ludicrus at best.

  23. Hal says:

    Rather disgusting people to be around.

    Well, you have your options, Mannning. You can make use of them.

  24. mannning says:

    Leaving the scene of a pacifist’s crime is illegal!

  25. Steve in wNY says:

    Hmmmmm. I guess I have to spell it out more clearly when dealing with someone with an airtight agenda and an abundance of condescension. My point was that there ARE journalists in Iraq who venture outside the Green Zone. You somehow inferred from my reference to Yon and Totten that everything in Mesopotamia is smelling like roses these days. I implied nothing of the sort. Your dismissal of the FACT that there are journalists on the ground outside of the Green Zone (whether you like what they are reporting or not) shows you to be entirely unserious.

    Oh, and for your information, Yon (contrary to the caricature you have projected) described the situation in Iraq as a civil war long before other media types were willing to do so, but he now has the temerity to document some of the recent successes of this phase of OIF. And I stand by my original suggestion that you read them (present tense) because if you had, you would have noticed that Totten has been posting from Anbar province recently. In fact, his reporting on the squalid conditions in an Iraqi prison recently resulted in an investigation, and subsequent pressure to remedy the situation, by the Pentagon.

  26. Hal says:

    Your dismissal of the FACT that there are journalists on the ground outside of the Green Zone .. shows you to be entirely unserious

    Wow, where the heck did I claim that no one ventured outside the green zone? Obviously, you’re letting your inferences override the actual words.

    Still, very, very serious. Bravo!

  27. Steve in wNY says:

    ROFLMAO. The press can’t even leave the Green Zone without getting killed or kidnapped.

    How ’bout there?

  28. Hal says:

    How ’bout there?

    My lord, when someone says “you kill me” in response to a great joke, do you believe that the joke has literally killed the person, too?

    What I said is perfectly true. The press has been killed and kidnapped an anyone who leaves is in great danger of having that happen to them. Every single reporter is taking their lives into their own hands when they venture outside the green zone. And anyone who’s wailing on the press for not reporting the super great news has to come up with some explanation that it’s really hard for the press to do their job when they can’t venture outside the green zone without taking their life into their own hands. Even when they’re brave enough to do so, it drastically limits what they can do, where they can go and with whom they can speak.

    This is precisely what I said, in shorter form, and if you took it another way, then I apologize for not being clear. But coming to the conclusion that I was stating no reporters operated outside the green zone is rather bizarre. I mean, even commie loving, Bin Laden cuddling NPR has reporters that operate outside the green zone.

    Geebus.

  29. Hal says:

    Oh, I guess today’s news that the kind of pure propaganda we’ve discovered the Pentagon has been feeding us is precisely the kind of “news” that y’all would rather the reporters give us. Or, as I’m sure there’s some rationalizing going on, you’ll see it as “balance” against the negative waves sent out by the “liberal” reporters.

    Behind Military Analysts, the Pentagon’s Hidden Hand

    But hey! Anything is okay when it’s the government doing the psyops on the american people, right?

  30. mannning says:

    It would be refreshing if reporters and their biased editors would publish the truth about what is going on. It would be delightful if the reporters were allowed to report what they observe and not what the leftist editors tell them to look for. It would be refreshing also if the reporters would do their own observing and recording, instead of paying highly dubious stringers in country to tell them what’s going on. It would be amazing if they would report that they cannot do their job because they are not going outside of the green zone (so why are they there at all?). It would be sensible for us to send people as reporters who can speak the languages needed to get at the truth, and not garbled accounts passed via some Iraqi.

    But this is all wishful thinking in this day of leftwing MSM bias. So those who think they know something about what is going on are simply ill-informed to begin with, except for bomb reporting, which they have down to a science now.
    I think I’d believe the Pentagon reports over these biased accounts we are being fed by the MSM.

  31. Hal says:

    Shorter Mannning:

    No one knows anything about Iraq therefore we can only conclude that Iraq is, indeed, a happy place filled with Leprechauns, Fairies and has ponies for everyone. If we only knew!