Best Defense

Nixon & Vietnam, Obama & Iraq

The end game waged by the Obama administration in many respects resembled that of Nixon and Kissinger’s in 1972. The difference, of course, is that in Hanoi Peace Accords, the Americans had to pull all of their military forces out of South Vietnam.

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By Williamson Murray
Best Defense guest columnist

The end game waged by the Obama administration in many respects resembled that of Nixon and Kissinger’s in 1972. The difference, of course, is that in Hanoi Peace Accords, the Americans had to pull all of their military forces out of South Vietnam. In Iraq, there was considerable room to negotiate a status of forces agreement that would have left a sufficiently strong American presence to maintain a reasonably highly level of training for the Iraqi military and to provide a backup should the Iraqis run into difficulties. But the Obama administration began negotiating a status of forces agreement late in the game, so late in fact that one can make a strong case that they had no intention of leaving any Americans in Iraq at all. In the rush to meet the deadline, Obama and Maliki found it impossible to create a new status of forces agreement necessary to keep the Americans in Iraq. Thus, the Americans left.

Those who had dealt with Maliki over the past years had considerable doubts about the prime minister’s competence as well as his willingness to work with others than the Shia. Not exactly trustful of the Kurds, he clearly regarded the Sunnis as completely untrustworthy. In March 2009, the Iraqis had held another national election. By the time the count was in, it was apparent that there was no clear winner. Nevertheless, Ayad Allawi, a moderate, highly intelligent politician, possessed the largest bloc in the new parliament. There would obviously be considerable political haggling, but had the Americans thrown their weight behind Allawi, he most probably would have succeeded Maliki as prime minister. But Hill argued that since much of Allawi’s support came from the Sunnis, he should not receive American support.

In fact, the writing was on the wall as to what kind of regime Maliki was going to run should he receive another term. His thugs were already arresting and torturing Sunnis, while he was pursuing Kurdish and Sunni politicians whom he described as unreconstructed Ba’athists, which amounted to just about anyone he regarded as an enemy. A number of these had been important tribal members in the “Awakening,” which had broken al-Qaeda. Obama did make an effort to secure the presidency of Iraq for Allawi, but the Kurds, who possessed that position, were not about to abandon the presidency. Maliki with the Americans blessing continued on as before.

Once the Americans were gone, Maliki proceeded on a predictable course of removing the Sunnis by any and all means. Furthermore he stiffed the Kurds, by cutting them off from much of the oil money they were supposed to receive from the Iraqi state. Rapidly, whatever chance their might have been to reach an accommodation among the Shiites, Sunni, and Kurds fell apart. But most disastrous for the continued peace of the Middle East, Maliki, much like Thieu, removed most of the competent Iraqi generals and senior officers. He replaced them with political appointees with little military competence, interested only in enriching themselves at the expense of the Iraqi state. Training and discipline collapsed, the results displayed most clearly in the complete collapse of the Iraqi division around Mosul against a bunch of hardly well-trained al-Qaeda operatives.

The moral and human results of the failure of American politicians and military leaders to recognize the implications of the past are already apparent. The bureaucracy of the U.S. government has already managed to sabotage congressional efforts to allow many Iraqis who support U.S. efforts during the war to immigrate to the United States. The savage atrocities perpetrated by the successors to al-Qaeda will undoubtedly be paid in full by the Shiite fanatics on the other side. The blood bath has already begun. When it will end no one knows.

And so we are left with the dismal possibility that along with the collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states, we could see a massive civil war similar to Europe’s religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And at what cost in blood and treasure have the American people paid for the willful ignorance of the past? It is almost tragedy as comedy. One cannot forget the comment of Peter Cooke, the British comic at the end of one of his skits: “I have gone over my mistakes from every point of view and am fully confident that I can repeat every one of them.” The tragedy of Americans is that we have not bothered even to study our mistakes.

Williamson Murray is a professor emeritus of The Ohio State University. Tom note: He has written more books than many people have read.

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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.

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