The United States tried to build a stable state in Iraq. We should've known better.
What is happening in Iraq right now is both a cautionary tale and an unfolding tragedy. The lesson is not about leaving Iraq too early, nor is it about having a Status of Force Agreement that would have kept us there. It’s not about firing the current national security team and appointing another one. It’s not about the effectiveness of air power in halting the advance of an insurgency.
The caution is about the blithe American assumption that the United States is omnipotent, that with enough money, good will, expertise, equipment, and training Americans can build foreign forces and bring security to troubled areas around the world. The tragedy is that what the U.S. does and has done leads down the road to failure. And more often than not, America bears the costs of its mistakes.
Iraqi security has always depended on the quality of Iraqi security forces and the capabilities of the government in Baghdad that commands them. Since 2003, the United States has spent more than $25 billion training and equipping the Iraqi military. Supporting the government that commands them cost the American taxpayer more than a trillion dollars, more than 50,000 dead and wounded Americans (not to speak of the trillion we will spend mopping up the mental and physical damage the war did to our own soldiers). Somewhere between 500,000 and a million Iraqis, so far, have paid for that temporary sense of security with their lives.
Now that the Iraqi military is folding like a cheap umbrella in a thunderstorm, reshaping the surrounding region, from Syria to Kurdistan and potentially far beyond, the Obama administration is left with a pitifully ugly set of options about what to do next.
The lesson is a telling one, and not one the administration or Congress (or much of the public) has learned: We cannot remake other countries, build their militaries, make them behave, and guarantee their security, either through occupation or by training and equipping their militaries.
The story of Iraq is a microcosm of American experience intruding in the security affairs of other countries and being humbled. It started more than 100 years ago, when we invaded the Philippines, spent years there, and left behind a country that remains insecure to this day. In the 1930s and beyond, we provided security and armed and trained a Nicaraguan military that became a dictatorship and remains troubled to this day. From early in the last century to the 1990s, U.S. forces imposed order in Haiti, which remains a basket case.
The biggest and most disastrous case, of course, may be Vietnam, where we supported a corrupt regime with little popular support. That war cost more than $750 billion (in constant dollars), took the lives of 58,000 U.S. military personnel, and left more than 150,000 wounded. And it ended in a loss with security guaranteed by the Viet Cong and the armies of North Vietnam.
Why do we repeatedly do so badly when trying to bring security to troubled countries? Because our military doesn’t do it very well. Because we don’t have the military or civilian capacity — nor the wisdom — to build other countries’ forces. And that is because it is almost impossible to do. The very attempt to provide security and build stability in another country is tragic in the most pure, Greek sense: We head toward a doomed fate, doing what we believe to be right, only to have our efforts undone by the effort itself, since occupation always creates resistance and opposition.
Aside from that, easy to do.
The Iraq tale is important. First, the Bush administration invaded the country and threw out its existing government. Bad mistake. Good or evil, it was their government, and an ugly form of order prevailed. The Coalition Provisional Authority, Bush’s steward for Iraq, compounded the error by disbanding the Iraqi military without a proper demobilization and cantonment of their arms. And then the CPA disbanded a substantial portion of the government, chasing the Baathists out of their bureaucratic posts. Then the insurgency and the Sunni-Shiite sectarian war — two prospects no one in the administration seemed to have anticipated — took over and gave the Americans a run for their money.
The Bush administration had not anticipated the need for an assistance program — either for security, the economy, or the Iraqi government. So we didn’t have one in place. We ran around for several years stitching one together. Initially, it had a lot of economic, infrastructure, or social development components, but as the insurgency grew, we re-jiggered the program to focus on security. And because we were "at war," we gave the lion’s share of the assistance money and responsibility to the U.S. military.
The U.S. military worked the security issue hard. They spent those $25 billion, and doubtless more, training, exercising, and equipping an Iraqi military we had to rebuild virtually from scratch. That was clearly not a success: Despite their expensive training, four divisions disappeared from northern Iraq in the face of, at the most, a couple of thousand insurgents. Kind of like the South Vietnamese military we had heavily trained, exercised, and equipped. Now the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is ending up with the ammo, Humvees, trucks, front-end loaders, and guns that we so generously — and expensively — left behind.
What wasn’t left behind was the kind of regime that could reverse this failure. This is the hard part. What really matters in security is not the strength of the troops, but political leadership and effective governance. A corrupt, inefficient, ineffective, divisive, unresponsive regime cannot credibly provide security, except by cruel dictatorship, as Saddam Hussein showed.
But we lack the wisdom and capacity to build a different kind of regime. And we certainly blew it in Iraq by leaving Nouri al-Maliki, a would-be sectarian strongman, in charge. We bought some quietus by paying off Sunnis in the "surge," but once Maliki was in charge, that subsidy stopped, as could have been predicted, opening up the door to renewed insurgency.
It is optimistic to say that building a government in someone else’s country is hard work. It may be more realistic to say that it is impossible. Either way, it is a task at which the United States failed. The government in Baghdad that we handed power to lacks wisdom and good judgment, is plagued by corruption and has generally failed at providing security or stability. After buying off the Sunnis, U.S. officials handed power to sectarian Shiites intent on getting what they see as their due. A course was set for sectarian tensions.
And here’s the tragic piece. Oedipus thought he had escaped the curse, but he killed his father and married his mother, pursuing what he thought was the best road away from the curse. The American invasion of Iraq was a tragic mistake. For a nano-second, many Iraqis welcomed the U.S. military. But the insurgency started almost at once, and grew, as did re
sentment of the American occupation and the actions of the U.S. military, who were doing what they thought was best to restore order. The harder they tried, the greater the resentment. And the presence of the U.S. military in the heart of the Arab world stirred concern on a regional basis.
Today, putting U.S. forces on the ground in any number is not an option. The American public has no appetite for more boots on the ground in foreign lands. The regional players do not want them there. The only party that would welcome American troops in Iraq is ISIS, who know that further American intervention would only bolster their appeal.
Again and again, we imagine we can bring security to the rest of the world. President Obama announced in a speech at West Point last month that he wants to create a new $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund to "train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines." He was vague about this fund’s details. In fact, as I wrote two weeks ago, the proposal had almost no content at all, which meant its contents could be nearly anything. Some of the $5 billion might be used to equip and train the Syrian rebels. Some might even be used to pay for air strikes against ISIS this coming week.
We have spent well north of $200 billion training and equipping the armies and security forces of more than 100 countries over the past couple of decades. These operations continue today in Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Yemen, and more than 80 other countries. We may hope we are doing good, but the reality may well be that we are only training the next corrupt set of militaries who will either support the next generation of dictators or inspire the next generation of insurgents.