Back to Iraq?
The Pottery Barn School of Foreign Policymaking states that if “you break it, you own it.” Commonly mis-attributed to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the notion was coined by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman early in 2003.
The idea is simple: nation-states are responsible for the consequences of their policy choices. Nowhere is that more true than in Iraq today. The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has requested American military assistance in fighting back the rapidly advancing forces of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
As an Iraq veteran it troubles me to say this, but I think we should provide it. And I recognize that, inevitably, drone strikes alone will not be enough; the United States will have to commit Special Operations forces to the fight.
We can’t ignore the risk of further Iraqi collapse not because “Islamist” politics are inherently inimical to American interests, but because geographically Iraq is like a keystone in an arch that links the Middle East to Europe (via Turkey and Russia), Iran, and Central Asia – and instability there is inherently inimical to American national interests, something the U.S. government has recognized since 1979 and the Carter Doctrine. We saw the consequences of state collapse in Afghanistan, and we didn’t like them very much; and Afghanistan in the 1990s was far less embedded in the global system than Iraq is today.
Yes, it’s partly about the oil; it can’t be otherwise. Oil has given shape and substance to the politics of regional actors and to Great Power foreign policy in the region. It would be hypocritical to pretend otherwise: I’m writing this on a laptop that is made of oil: its plastic keys are oil, much of its internals are oil, it was shipped to the store I bought it in with oil, and the WiFi signal on which I’m transmitting this post is powered by oil. President Jimmy Carter’s declaration that Persian Gulf stability was a vital American interest recognized the strategic importance of the region – and its oil – to both the U.S. and the developed world. This is why Chinese oil tankers sail from Gulf ports to China under the protection of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Stability and oil. As principles of foreign policymaking, they’re not especially ennobling, not especially inspirational, and have historically been easily abused. That doesn’t mean they’re not still valid objectives.
We have an obligation not to abandon Iraq. We broke it, and in breaking it exacerbated the long-running tensions between Iraq’s minority Sunni and majority Shi’i. Just as the British imposed a Sunni regime on Mesopotamia, which led inevitably to the Shi’a repressions of the Saddam Hussein era, we imposed a Shi’a regime on Iraq, which has led to the Sunni repressions of the Nouri al-Maliki era.
We were willfully blind to Iraq’s sectarian divisions. Too many people in Washington were content to listen to William Kristol glibly assure radio host Terry Gross that fears of sectarian conflict were just “pop sociology” because there was “almost no evidence of” sectarian conflict in Iraqi history at all. Had the Bush administration bothered to send an unpaid intern to the National Archives, however, they would have a found a long 1917 communiqué from the American consul in Baghdad, observing that the newly occupying British seemed unaware of the latent and often open hostility that existed between the two Muslim groups and that would render extremely difficult the creation of any stable regime.
The Bush administration treated Iraq as if it were a kind of foreign policy champagne bottle. Remove the cork — Saddam — and all good things would flow freely. It was criminally negligent policymaking.
More to the point, in breaking Iraq we created an opening for the jihadis that now threaten not only the lives of ordinary Iraqis but the viability of Iraq as a nation-state itself. As the estimable Juan Cole argues, al-Qaeda and other extremists only became forces in Iraqi politics after we invaded and created a kind of attractive nuisance for jihadis. As President George W. Bush was fond of saying, we fought them there instead of fighting them here. (As I used to say to my soldiers, all we really did was save them the cost of airfare and the hassle of the TSA.) That was easy for Bush to say; it was Iraqis who paid the price.
Though Cole’s point is correct, it’s also irrelevant. We can’t abandon Iraqis to a fate we helped create simply because we dislike the administration that created it.
When the last American troops crossed the Iraq-Kuwait border on December 18, 2011, Americans collectively seemed to assume Iraq was “over.” It wasn’t. Since the end of the 19th-century, America’s Iraq policy has alternated between long periods of benign neglect and brief periods of intense focus. The end of military operations meant the beginning of foreign relations — or should have. Instead, the Obama administration fell into the comfortable, historical pattern, and in the place of policymaking we chose strategic neglect. To this day, the only mention of Iraq on the White House website is the three years-old “news” that the President “kept his promise” and ended the war.
Just as Iraqis paid a heavy price for the Bush administration’s strategic neglect, they are now paying a heavy price for the Obama administration’s strategic neglect.
It’s absolutely true that Iraqis wanted American military forces out of their country. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the American economy tanked and the American armed forces were paralyzed by drug abuse and criminality, Germans wanted our troops out of their country, too. Yet by the early 1980s, even in the face of massive protests against America’s nuclear weapons policy there, public opinion in Germany was still broadly supportive of American military forces. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a time would come when Iraqis would want us back – this time as allies, rather than occupiers.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, there is little agreement between Washington and our allies in the Persian Gulf as to what courses of action are appropriate given the rapidly evolving situation on the ground in Iraq.
That’s unsurprising. There’s seldom agreement among allies, except on the broad points. When NATO’s European defense ministers met in Brussels prior to the Libya intervention, they all agreed on one thing: they wanted to intervene (largely to forestall a migration crisis), but for reasons of domestic politics none wanted to lead the intervention. For that they needed the United States, and the comparatively token contribution the U.S. made to the Libya operation was sufficient to give Europe’s leaders domestic political cover.
I expect we will see the same pattern in Iraq. It is worth remembering that when he campaigned in 2008, President Obama did not oppose all wars, just “dumb wars.” The Bush-Cheney war in Iraq was a dumb war. This one? Maybe not so much.
Consider the complexities: another Iraqi refugee crisis, this one in the midst of a Syrian refugee crisis, tens of thousands of people converging on Turkey and Jordan, neither of which will be especially enthusiastic about taking in displaced persons again; ISIS in Mosul threatens Iraqi Kurdistan, which is situated in a delicate strategic interaction with Turkey; the border has long been a source of conflict and latent instability in the bilateral Iran-Iraq relationship; Iraq itself borders Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia there are simmering resentments among the minority Shi’i; in many of the Gulf states, especially Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, governments and other elites have long been engaged in a treacherous pas-de-deux with Islamist extremists elsewhere in the region; and the prospect of a collapsing Iraqi central state and the strategic implications of an ISIS proto-state (which would be a magnet for extremists) will surely set off alarms in Tel Aviv.
That’s a recipe for disaster. It’s also one the United States will not be able to avoid.
We broke it. And the fact that we had a change of administration on January 20, 2009, doesn’t mean we’re not still obligated to try and fix it.