We Did Not ‘Lose’ Iraq

But it is America's job to help Baghdad beat back the new threat from al Qaeda.


Iraq has made an unwelcome return to the American public consciousness. In late December, the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seized considerable territory in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province. Its gains included neighborhoods in the city of Fallujah, the site of an epic U.S. battle against al Qaeda in 2004, rekindling American fears that its old enemies have gained the upper hand in a region where the United States sacrificed so much blood and treasure.

President Barack Obama’s administration is doing the right thing by increasing intelligence and operational cooperation with the Iraqi government, sending weapons to the Iraqi army, and moving forward on attack helicopter transfers. At the same time, the administration is correctly pushing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to govern more inclusively, as his marginalization of the Sunni Arab minority has contributed to al Qaeda’s appeal among the community.

But despite Maliki’s flaws, the United States should wholeheartedly work with him in combating the jihadist threat. He is, after all, the elected leader of a critically important country, and the aid we are providing serves the vast majority of the Iraqi people in a desperate fight against a merciless enemy. It is obviously a core U.S. national interest to block al Qaeda from establishing yet another base in an ungoverned territory. This is particularly true in the case of Iraq, which if stable can provide oil exports of 6 million barrels a day by 2020 — an output that would have a hugely positive impact on the global economy. Moreover, given the American sacrifice there, failure to help defend Iraq against a sworn enemy would further undercut U.S. credibility in the Middle East.

Yet, the renewed prominence of Iraq has opened old wounds. The administration initially took pains to stress that the fight against al Qaeda in Anbar was Iraq’s fight, not ours. Meanwhile, some veterans of the Iraq war voiced their disappointment at everything now transpiring there, questioning the purpose of their service if al Qaeda was allowed to regain a foothold in the region. Republicans and Democrats in Washington traded the usual accusations, blasting the other side for "losing Iraq" or getting the United States embroiled in a quagmire in the first place.

Given the importance of the current situation, it’s worth reviewing how we got to this juncture. The history of U.S. involvement in Iraq over the past decade contains valuable lessons about what America was able to achieve in Iraq — and also the aspects of the country it found impossible to change.

The most important lesson from our decade-plus involvement in Iraq is that the country was never ours to "win." Iraq’s fate remains an important U.S. national interest, but the country cannot be remade in our image. This was reflected in one explicit goal of our Iraq policy — to provide real self-determination to the population. Not self-determination to do only the smart things as we see them — but to do whatever Iraqis think is right.

Of course, we did provide the Iraqis with advice and assistance. But in contrast to colonial administrations, our very purpose was to have Iraqi voices determine their country’s future. The fact that they are having difficulties doing so successfully should surprise nobody, given the state of the rest of the Middle East.

The contradiction at the core of U.S. policy was the mixing of two separate goals. On the one hand, the United States tried to transform Iraq into a model Western-style democracy — an effort justified as much on geostrategic as idealistic grounds. On the other hand, U.S. policymakers pushed Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future. The two goals would have been compatible only if the Iraqis had agreed they wanted to be "like us," and had the wherewithal to pursue that goal. Post-1945 Germany had both, post-2003 Iraq had neither.

We did not know that, however, at the time U.S. forces rolled into Baghdad. Back then, the hope was that the United States could generate a dynamic similar to that in Eastern Europe in 1989, when the fall of Soviet dictatorship liberated populations to seek a democratic future allied with the West.

But what we got in Iraq was chaos, followed quickly by insurgency. With the whole endeavor at risk, the United States managed to partially salvage its effort in 2007 and 2008 with the troop "surge," and the uprising of the Sunni tribes against al Qaeda. The central concept of this counterinsurgency effort was that stabilizing the security situation would generate space for the feuding ethnic and religious groups to reconcile, and allow for the emergence of a sufficiently effective government and expanding economy to generate citizen "buy-in" in the national project.

The endeavor required massive U.S. intervention in most public spheres, particularly national and local government, the legal system, the security forces, and the economy — but we succeeded only very partially. This was not an insignificant achievement, and arguably justifies the sacrifices we made, but it did not meet the expectations of those across the U.S. political spectrum who believed in transformational nation building.

Today, the belief that the United States can transform foreign nations is much maligned, and authors such as Peter Beinart have condemned it as "hubris." But given the circumstances a decade ago, it was understandable. The United States had been engaged militarily in the Middle East almost constantly since the global military alert during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with no end in sight. The 9/11 attacks demonstrated how dangerous this demi-war could be and, given various anti-American despots’ WMD programs, how much more dangerous it could become. Furthermore, America had successfully fostered Western-aligned democracies in the Balkans, Central America, and in East Asia, creating seemingly improbable new "Germanys" with the same formula applied in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the end, however, the U.S. experience in the Middle East came to resemble its long war in Vietnam more closely than its launch of the Marshall Plan in post-war Germany. The American people, meanwhile, lost interest in the costly effort.

Some who advocated nation building in Iraq blame either the George W. Bush or Obama administration for failing to complete the effort. But the full job — broadly defined as an Iraq that had overcome its sectarian and ethnic divisions and that boasted vibrant Western-style political, economic, and legal institutions — was simply not feasible. Even if the Bush administration had avoided some of its errors — not disbanding the Iraqi army, committing more troops to the country in 2003, devoting more energy to reconciling the Kurds and the Iraqi central government, or tweaking the 2005 constitution — the end result would still have been similar.

The Obama administration is in a similar position. Some critics blame the current mess on the administration’s support for the re-election of Maliki in 2010, or its failure to keep troops in the country after 2011. These criticisms suffer from the same flaw as those aimed at the Bush administration: Any alternatives would not only have been extremely difficult, they would have made only minor adjustments in a complex political dynamic involving almost 30 million people.

Obama simply had little ability to change the basic course of Iraqi politics, even on the issues critics highlight as his signature mistakes. Concerning the 2010 elections, the two Shiite religious coalitions were united in having one of their own become prime minister — and they won 50 percent of the vote, compared to less than 30 percent from the largely Sunni Arab coalition. For almost nine months after the election, the United States encouraged the political parties to find a potential premier more palatable than Maliki — but none emerged. Regarding the troop withdrawal, it was the result of the Iraqi government’s failure to extend the status of forces agreement: With violence levels very low and the Iraqi security forces more capable, the Iraqi electorate could accept a continued presence but balked at granting legal immunity to U.S. soldiers. Given this decision, the Obama administration simply had no choice but to withdraw all U.S. soldiers from the country, as stipulated in the agreement signed by the Bush administration.  

It’s true that, if some U.S. forces had remained, the Iraqi army would be better trained, delivery of intelligence and counterterrorism assistance would be more efficient, and various parties in and outside Iraq would have been reassured about the country’s political course. This would have helped in the current struggle against al Qaeda — but only on the margins. Absent direct combat involvement by an American force much larger than anyone envisioned remaining in Iraq, the United States could not have been decisive in stopping this jihadist threat. A U.S. military presence would also not have intimidated Maliki into a more inclusive political stance — he sometimes acted irresponsibly while we still had tens of thousands of combat troops in country, after all.

But regardless of how we got here, it’s now the job of the United States to help Iraq beat back the al Qaeda threat. This time, we are more likely to understand that the country will not be the Western-aligned democracy that many dreamed of back in 2003 — but that it could still enjoy relative peace and stability if the jihadists are defeated and Sunni Arabs get a better deal from Baghdad. In confronting this threat, we protect American interests and honor those Americans who risked their lives in Iraq and elsewhere across the Middle East over this past decade. They cannot celebrate a 1945-style triumph, but they have helped keep that critical region from total collapse.  

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