Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Iraq: Why is everyone so damn surprised?

One of the editors at Foreign Policy was pushing me yesterday to say more about Iraq, despite my feeling of numb wordlessness. OK, here goes. My question is, Why the hell is everyone so surprised? Was this not inevitable? Perhaps it was foretold on the day we removed Sunni power from Baghdad, and so took ...

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

One of the editors at Foreign Policy was pushing me yesterday to say more about Iraq, despite my feeling of numb wordlessness.

OK, here goes. My question is, Why the hell is everyone so surprised? Was this not inevitable? Perhaps it was foretold on the day we removed Sunni power from Baghdad, and so took down the bulwark that prevented the westward expansion of Persian power. Certainly it looked likely from the time Maliki decided to attack the Sunni towns to the west of Baghdad.

Is this what American troops were fighting for? No, John, because they don't get to decide what they are fighting for.

One of the editors at Foreign Policy was pushing me yesterday to say more about Iraq, despite my feeling of numb wordlessness.

OK, here goes. My question is, Why the hell is everyone so surprised? Was this not inevitable? Perhaps it was foretold on the day we removed Sunni power from Baghdad, and so took down the bulwark that prevented the westward expansion of Persian power. Certainly it looked likely from the time Maliki decided to attack the Sunni towns to the west of Baghdad.

Is this what American troops were fighting for? No, John, because they don’t get to decide what they are fighting for.

You want a lesson of Iraq? Here’s one: Don’t go invading countries about which you don’t know enough to know what you want to do once you get there.

Ready for another? OK, here: Don’t destroy a power without considering what will fill the ensuing vacuum.

A third lesson, aimed at myself: This situation makes me think I was wrong when I supported the idea of having a small "residual force" of perhaps 10,000 troops based near Baghdad to support the Iraqi government and to discourage coups. If we had troops there now, we would be facing the choice of pulling them out under fire or reinforcing them, two equally unpalatable choices.

No, I don’t think we should do airstrikes. The last thing we need is American pilots being held prisoner by the new guys. And where would you base your combat search & rescue helicopters, and what do you do when one of them gets shot down? I don’t think Obama faces hard choices in Iraq.

The one interesting suggestion I’ve heard is that the U.S. government make military aid to Iraq dependent on Maliki stepping down. But I think Iran has more say in that than we do.  

But I do think we will continue to be surprised and chagrined for many years to come by how Iraq plays out. Ryan Crocker, then the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said to me in 2008 that the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered hadn’t yet happened.  I think we may be seeing the beginning of those events now. But everything in Iraq takes longer than expected, so it may be a decade or even more before we know what really has happened.  

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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