Marc Lynch

What’s Missing from the Iraq Debate

What’s Missing from the Iraq Debate

The outpouring of commentary surrounding the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war can feel like déjà vu all over again. The political battle lines have changed very little over the past decade: Mostly, those who opposed the war decry the invasion, and its supporters defend it. There have been plenty of (often very good) diagnoses of what went wrong, but the parallel push for intervention in Syria and war with Iran suggests that few lessons will actually be learned from the war.

But here’s one surprising detail about the flood of retrospectives: They have almost exclusively been written by Americans, talking about Americans, for Americans. Indeed, many Iraqis fail to see the point of commemorating the disastrous war for the benefit of the American media.

American strategic narcissism is nothing new, of course. The notion that what the United States does is the most important aspect of every development pervades American foreign-policy punditry, whether about Iraq or Egypt, Syria and the Arab uprisings. But we really should know better by now: First, the entire point of the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq was to get soldiers out in to the population, meeting with people and winning their trust. What’s more, the "surge" of U.S. troops in 2007 could not have succeeded without the Sunni turn against al Qaeda in Iraq, which preceded it. Second, the Arab Spring’s ethos of citizen empowerment should have made it impossible to ignore the agency of the people in the region.

How American-centric has the outpouring of commentary been? Very. The New Republic got eight writers to comment on the anniversary, none Iraqi. Foreign Affairs put out a very good retrospective of its coverage of Iraq with 11 articles and 25 contributors, none Iraqi. The New York Times managed to find one, out of six roundtable contributors. And to show that there’s no house bias here, the otherwise fascinating roundtable overseen by my Foreign Policy boss invited 20 significant participants in the war to talk about its lessons — and didn’t include a single Iraqi. (We’ve got a few pieces by Iraqis in the works for the Middle East Channel, but we could do better, too.) The bestselling books about Iraq also tend to focus on American military strategy, Washington policy debates, or Gen. David Petraeus, with only token appearances by Iraqis. Exceptions, such as Mark Kukis’s Voices From Iraq, the late Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near, and Nir Rosen’s exceptional reporting from inside the insurgencies only prove the rule. 

This America-centric bias ensnares academics as well as policymakers. Take, for example, the best scholarly account to date of the impact of the surge, by my George Washington University colleague Steve Biddle, along with Jacob Shapiro and Jeffrey Friedman. Their article does a commendable job of dissecting the complex causation of the battlefield changes in 2006 to 2008, concluding that both local developments such as the Anbar Awakening and the surge contributed to the reduction in violence. But consider this: The underlying data for the analysis is based upon a dataset of "significant activities" (SIGACTs) recorded by Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF-I) headquarters and 70 interviews with coalition officers who fought in Iraq during this period. A collection of oral histories from Anbar Province, published by the Marine Corps University, makes it into the middle of a long footnote.

In other words, what is by consensus the best academic work on the subject evaluates the surge entirely based upon the experiences and records of the U.S. military. If MNF-I did not record an incident, it did not happen; if Iraqi voices were not taken into account by U.S. military officers on the scene, they do not exist. (I tried to incorporate Iraqi attitudes and voices into a strategic analysis of the war in this Security Studies article; judge for yourself if it succeeded.)

Myopia has consequences. Failing to listen to those Iraqi voices meant getting important things badly wrong. Most profoundly, the American filter tends to minimize the human costs and existential realities of military occupation and a brutal, nasty war. The savage civil war caused mass displacement and sectarian slaughter that will be remembered for generations. The U.S. occupation also involved massive abuses and shameful episodes, from torture at Abu Ghraib Prison to a massacre of unarmed Iraqis in the city of Haditha. The moral and ethical imperative to incorporate Iraqi perspectives should be obvious.

The habit of treating Iraqis as objects to be manipulated rather than as fully equal human beings — with their own identities and interests — isn’t just ethically problematic, it’s strategically problematic. It helps to explain why so many American analysts failed to anticipate or to prevent the insurgency, why the political institutions the United States designed proved so dysfunctional, why Washington drew the wrong lessons from the Anbar Awakening and the surge, and why so many analysts exaggerated the likely effects of a military withdrawal.

Take the Anbar Awakening, which is widely considered a turning point in the war. The decision by key Sunni tribes and factions within the Sunni insurgency to turn against the more extreme al Qaeda factions took shape in 2006, long before the "surge" had been conceived, decided upon, or implemented. To their credit, some key American military commanders did manage to grasp what was happening, and were flexible enough to cut deals with groups who had recently been fighting against them. But American troop levels and strategy did not cause the Awakening.

But strategic narcissism meant that the lessons drawn from Anbar too often were about counterinsurgency strategy rather than about responding effectively to local political and social developments. In the U.S. political debate, the Awakening and the surge were conflated in highly misleading ways. Washington obsessed about
troop levels and the strategies of U.S. generals, perhaps because those were among the few variables they could control. But that action bias slid all too easily into the analytical conceit that troop levels and American strategy where what mattered, rather than the shifting balance of power, interests, identities and expectations of the Iraqi political forces themselves. That misreading — making U.S. strategy rather than local conditions central — in turn led to the misapplication of COIN to a quixotic surge in Afghanistan, where none of those local factors were present. It predictably failed.

What about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq? It’s fair to say that most analysts at the time predicted disaster and preferred to keep American troops in Iraq indefinitely. They warned darkly that without American troops to police fragile local ceasefires and reassure a frightened Iraqi elite, order would break down and civil war would resume. But instead, Iraqi politics have hardly changed at all: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was consolidating power and behaving in semi-authoritarian ways with American troops on the ground, and he has done the same after they left. Sunnis complained of disenfranchisement and sectarian government with U.S. troops and without them. Governance and services were disastrous with and without American troops. Al Qaeda and other extremists carried out a regular series of low-level bombings and gruesome attacks when the U.S. troops were there and after they left. Relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish region were dangerously tense — but not breaking into open war or secession — both before and after.

Small wonder, then, that the most recent Gallup survey found that a year after the U.S. withdrawal, only 19 percent of Iraqis think security has gotten worse (42 percent think it’s gotten better, 38 percent say it has stayed the same). Political stability? Thirty-seven percent think it’s gotten worse, 20 percent better, and 41 percent about the same.

The real story of the American departure is how little it mattered. That’s in part because the United States was never as necessary or wanted as Americans liked to believe. There’s no question that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, for one, made himself indispensible to Iraqi politics through his tireless and effective diplomatic efforts. But as Charles De Gaulle famously (if apocryphally) said, the graveyards are full of indispensible men. Outside players can marginally affect faraway countries for a short time and through tremendous exertion, but their efforts are always refracted through local politics and rarely last.

Iraqis cared about their own politics, not Washington’s. The reason Maliki wouldn’t agree to a new Status of Forces Agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay longer is not that the Obama administration failed to try hard enough, it’s that Iraqi public opinion overwhelmingly wanted the Americans to leave. Is it so hard to see that Maliki rejected American advice on steps toward reconciliation because he just didn’t think that they served his interests? When U.S. troops pulled out, Iraqi politics continued along the same sorry path of dysfunction as during the long occupation. The forcing mechanism of withdrawal didn’t compel political compromise as much as I had hoped, primarily because Maliki was too secure to see the need to make such compromises, with the Sunni Awakening groups on his payroll, his main Shiite rivals on their back foot, and a non-sectarian political alternative struggling to cohere. 

Here’s what we should have taken away from the Iraq withdrawal: The U.S. departure just didn’t change very much, and the United States keeping its troops there longer wouldn’t have made much difference. But such a lesson is incompatible with our deeply ingrained strategic narcissism, and thus will not likely be learned. 

It’s easy to understand why the U.S. debate tends to focus on American actions and concerns. There should be some real self-reflection over the launching of a disastrous war. And policy analysts will always obsess about troop levels and counterinsurgency strategies, because those were among the few variables Washington can actually control. But it’s harder to fathom why the combination of the trauma of the Iraq war and the hope of the Arab Spring haven’t forced Arab voices onto the agenda. That doesn’t mean finding new Ahmed Chalabis, of course — smooth-talking exiles claiming to speak on behalf of Arab citizens in their push for military intervention. The last two years should have taught us to be as deeply suspicious of any claims of a unified voice, as of predictions of easy military victories. The Chalabi phenomenon should be much more difficult in an information environment with millions of politically engaged Arabs online — though the evolution of the debate over Syria, where many Syrians have called for military intervention, does suggest some more complicated dynamics.

Want to understand what went wrong in Iraq in all its complexity and chaos? The Internet is full of Iraqi academics, journalists, NGO leaders, and political activists with interesting perspectives on the invasion. It might also be useful to hear from the refugees, the displaced, and the families who lost everything. They will disagree with each other, have little patience for the pieties of American political debate, and refuse to fit comfortably into analytical boxes. On the 10th anniversary of the invasion, we should be hearing a lot more from them — and a lot less from the former American officials and pundits who got it wrong the first time.