There Is Nothing Left for Americans to Do in Iraq

Qassem Suleimani and Tehran have won the battle for Baghdad. U.S. policymakers should understand that—and leave.

Protesters gather at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, amid ongoing anti-government demonstrations.
Protesters gather in Baghdad, Iraq, amid anti-government demonstrations on Dec. 10, 2019. Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images

Qassem Suleimani is dead. Good riddance. In a region where there are a lot of bad actors, he was certainly among the worst. There has been so much fearmongering over the potential ramifications from killing the head of Iran’s Quds Force that lost in all of the commentary is the fact that the man was drenched in blood. Set aside the American deaths on his hands and consider the hundreds of thousands who have died just in Syria after Iran, under Suleimani’s direction, mobilized to save its ally Bashar al-Assad.

The pitched debate over whether Suleimani was planning an imminent attack—something that is always in the eye of the beholder—on U.S. personnel and interests when he was struck down by a U.S. airstrike last week is important, but the fury with which it is being waged obscures a more fundamental concern about the Iranian general’s demise. It would be one thing to kill Suleimani and bear the burden of the associated risks if there was a plausible case to be made that getting rid of him would have a salutary effect on Iraq and the U.S. ability to influence events there. That seems unlikely. Iraq is in a state of terminal collapse, and the United States is isolated and impotent there. It is thus hard to understand what Washington wants, and what the Americans who were left vulnerable to the likes of Suleimani are actually able to accomplish. The hard truth is that Iraq is lost, and it is time to leave. The foreign-policy community is reluctant to relitigate the invasion of Iraq and its consequences. Perhaps it is too much for analysts and officials—former and current—to bear, but it is worth understanding how and why the trillions of dollars spent, lives lost, and untold number of injured were simply a waste.

Iraq is not a state in the sense that it has a monopoly over violence or can enforce property rights. The system of political and economic spoils set up after the 2003 invasion has led to rapacious thievery and corruption, robbing Iraq of its natural wealth and impoverishing its people. As a result, Iraqis have lost faith in virtually every institution and have poured onto the streets across much of the country to demand a new political order. They have been met with violence at the hands of people allied to and supported by the now-dead Suleimani, whose mission was to ensure that post-invasion Iraq remained so weak and unstable it could never threaten Iran again. This was an entirely predictable result, but the George W. Bush administration, 296 members of the House of Representatives, 77 Senators, and legions of pundits chose to believe fantasies about weapons of mass destruction and democracy delivered at the end of an M1A1 tank.

No one understood Iraq in the run-up to the war, and in the almost two decades since, Americans have proved that the country remains beyond their grasp. As recently as last spring, analysts and officials in Washington were claiming that after defeating the Islamic State in Mosul in 2017, Iraq was on the path to stability. Never mind that public opinion polling indicated Iraqis—across sects and ethnicities—were seething over the dysfunction in Baghdad. Perhaps Washington would have had a better grasp had its diplomats been able to leave their bunkerlike compounds, but they, through no fault of their own, have little contact with Iraqis. It takes weeks of planning and robust security umbrellas for U.S. officials to go anywhere, so it does not happen all that often. If policymakers do not understand how Iraq works, they have no way of knowing what resources to bring to bear in order to help Iraqis build a more stable political system and prosperous economy. The result is wasted effort and throwing more good money after bad.

Still, U.S. officials insist that these goals are attainable and that the United States is working with its Iraqi partners to realize a stable and prosperous future for all Iraqis. Who are these partners? People like Hadi al-Amiri, not only the leader of the notorious Badr Organization but also a member of Iraq’s parliament in good standing. Is Faleh al-Fayyad, the national security advisor to the Iraqi prime minister, a partner? Both men participated in the siege at the U.S. Embassy along with other high-profile, notorious Iranian-linked militia leaders late last month. Then there is Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, an apparently well-regarded technocrat, who has been vocal in the effort to push the United States out of Iraq. It is surely the case that the Suleimani killing is putting the squeeze on those people who support a U.S.-Iraq relationship, but this group—with the exception of Iraq’s Kurds—never seemed large or terribly committed to the kind of strategic ties Washington sought. Mostly, it seems, Iraqis just want the United States to get out. It is hard to blame them. Americans marched into their country, have enabled almost 17 years of chaos, and now threaten a proxy war in which they will suffer.

There is an argument to be made that the United States must remain in Iraq to fight the Islamic State. In the abstract that makes sense, but reality is different. The central government in Baghdad—such as it is—through corruption, dysfunction, venality, and malevolence is contributing to conditions that are ripe for the Islamic State to reemerge as a significant threat. That would be a reason to stay in Iraq, but given the fact that the United States has zero influence over Iraqi politics, U.S. forces would be reduced to a never-ending mission of whack-a-mole in an environment in which there is even less trust and more enmity between the Iraqi and U.S. governments. That makes it harder to fight terrorists. The Trump administration also just killed the guy who—like it or not—was a virtual partner in the fight against the Islamic State, highlighting the strategic incoherence of killing Suleimani.

The strike and counterstrike that led to Suleimani’s demise last Friday is the result of Americans, whether on military bases or diplomatic compounds, being left vulnerable to Iran’s proxies. It is not worth it. There is nothing left for Americans to do in Iraq. American officials and analysts cannot allow themselves to be convinced that the United States must remain in Iraq because if diplomats and military officers try a little harder, things might get better, or because Washington has sunk vast sums into the country, or because it would be handing Iran a victory. The Iranians have already won that battle. And the sooner U.S. policymakers can digest that fact, the better.

Qassem Suleimani was without a doubt a malign geopolitical actor. But targeting him because he destabilized Iraq and threatened Americans there hardly seems worth the potential price. If even parts of the worst-case scenarios come true, his death by drone along the Baghdad airport road will be yet another folly in the two-decade-long American misadventure in Iraq.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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