The blame game is going in full force. Pro-war enthusiasts like John McCain say that they had “won” Iraq but Obama lost it. Others say Bush lost Iraq and there is nothing Obama can do. But trying to blame Obama or Bush is to miss the real point: Iraq proves the limits of US power. The US was never in a position to “win” in Iraq or reshape the Mideast.
The current crisis reflects the dramatic gains of a group known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), which has seized control of most of the major Sunni regions in Iraq and threatens Baghdad. Their goal is to create a Jihadist state out of the old Baathist countries of Syria and Iraq. Their power is one reason the world doesn’t do more to help get rid of Assad in Syria – as bad as Assad is, his government’s survival prevents Syria from falling to extremists. The ISIS has its roots in the US invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, shortly after the invasion began Abu Musab al-Zarqawi begin to recruit Sunni Muslims in Iraq and especially Syria to form what at first was called “al qaeda in Iraq.” His goal was to create an Islamic state patterned after the beliefs of Osama Bin Laden. He felt the US invasion gave his group a chance at success. He could recruit extremists and use the Sunni’s hatred of the Shi’ites and the Americans to create a powerful force.
At first it worked brilliantly. Al qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents were two separate groups who really didn’t like each other but had a common set of enemies – the Shi’ite led government and the Americans. By 2006 Zarqawi achieved his dream of igniting a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war, throwing Iraq into utter chaos. At that time the US public turned against the ill advised war, the Democrats took Congress, and President Bush was forced to dramatically alter policy.
He did so successfully – so successfully that President Obama continued Bush’s policies designed to get the US out of Iraq. In so doing President Bush completely redefined policy goals. The goals had been ambitious – to spread democracy and create a stable US client state with American bases from which we could assure the Mideast developed in a manner friendly to US interests. Instead, “peace with honor” became the new goal – stabilize Iraq enough so the US could leave. In that, the goal was similar to President Nixon’s in leaving Vietnam. The Vietnam war ended in defeat two years later when the Communists took the South. Could the Iraq war ultimately end with defeat? If so, who’s to blame?
The key to President Bush’s success was to parlay distaste Arab Sunnis had for Zarqawi’s methods – and their recognition that the Shi’ites were defeating them in the 2006 civil war – into a willingness to side with the Americans against Zarqawi’s organization. When Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike, it appeared that the US was on its way to breaking the back of the organization, unifying Iraqi Sunnis against the foreign fighters.
So what went wrong? Part of the success of the ISIS is the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who seized the initiative when Syria fell into civil war and the eastern Syria essentially lost any effective government. In conditions of anarchy, the strongest and most ruthless prevail. Add to that the fact that the Iraqi government has never truly had western Iraq under control, this created the perfect opportunity to create a new organization. With the Americans gone, Sunni distaste for Shi’ite rule grew, and with the Kurds taking much of the northern oil region, Sunni tribes found it in their interest to support ISIS – even if it is unlikely they share the same long term goal.
So what can the US do? Very little. Air strikes might kill some ISIS forces, but they could also inspire more anger against the government and the foreign invaders. Ground troops are out of the question – the US would be drawn into the kind of quagmire that caused such dissent and anger back against President Bush’s war. Focused killing of top ISIS leaders – meh. Zarqawi was killed, but a more able leader took his place. Focused killing also means killing civilians, these things are sanitary. So it might just end up angering the public more and helping ISIS recruit.
The bottom line is that the US lost Iraq as soon as it invaded. The US undertook a mission it could not accomplish – to alter the political and social landscape of a country/culture through military force and external pressure. The US did win the Iraq war – the US won that within three weeks. The US military is very good at winning wars – but it’s not designed for social engineering. The idea that we could create a democratic pro-US Iraq and simply spread democracy to the region was always a fool’s pipe dream.
The fact is that the kind of military power the US has is not all that useful in the 21st Century. We are not going to fight another major war against an advanced country, nuclear weapons would bring massive harm to the planet, including ourselves, and intervening in third world states sucks us into situations that assure failure. We won’t be able to change the cultural realities on the ground, and the public will rebel against the cost in dollars and lives. Moreover, as our economy continues to sputter, such foreign adventures do real harm.
The lesson from Iraq is that our power to unilaterally shape world events if far less than most American leaders realize. Foreign policy wonks from the Cold War area are still addicted to an image of the US as managing world affairs, guaranteeing global stability and being the world leader. That era is over. Gone. Kaputt.
Now we have to work with others in the messy business of diplomacy and compromise, accepting that other parts of the world will change in their own way, at their own pace. The good news is that they are mostly concerned with their own affairs, and if we don’t butt in, we’ll not again be a target. The real al qaeda condemns the ISIS for its brutality – without the US trying to control what happens, the different groups will fight with each other. But that’s the bad news – change is messy and often violent.
But we can’t fix the world, or somehow turn other regions into little emerging western democracies. That’s reality – and the sooner we accept and focus on what we can accomplish, the better it will be for us and the world.