Iraq Returns

“One of the peculiarities of much American commentary about foreign affairs is

the absence of memory.

This is unfortunate since it deprives thinking about the current situation

of perspective and context. “



Iraq is creeping back into the news.  Slowly.  Americans are not welcoming its return.  One might think that a place that cost more than a trillion dollars, tens of thousands of casualties, killed more than 100,000 Iraqis, and sullied the good name of the United States has a claim on the nation’s attention.  Especially so since the path to war was paved with deceit and it served no legitimate American interest.  Such a conclusion, though, misreads the psychology of a people led by the nose into misfortunate and persuaded by those who did the leading that “closure” is what they need and deserve.  ‘Closure” means forgetting and ignoring.  Forgetting what was done in their name; ignoring the current mayhem.

Now, events on the ground are threatening to upset that avoidance strategy.  Iraq’s fissures are widening as violence returns as the weapon of choice in the internecine sectarian war that is entrenched as Iraq’s overriding political reality.  President Obama had painted a rosy picture when he marked the reluctant end of America’s military engagement in Mesopotamia in December 2011.  At that time, he pronounced:
“People throughout the region will see a new Iraq that’s determining its own destiny — a country in which people from different religious sects and ethnicities can resolve their differences peacefully through the democratic process…. So we’re partnering to strengthen the institutions upon which Iraq’s democracy depends — free elections, a vibrant press, a strong civil society, professional police and law enforcement that uphold the rule of law, an independent judiciary that delivers justice fairly, and transparent institutions that serve all Iraqis.”
His depiction was a gross misrepresentation then.  Today, it is a sad cartoon of a reality that we have struggled hard to hide from ourselves.  The United States’ intervention and occupation broke the Iraq state and unraveled Iraqi society.  What we see now is the playing out of the consequences.  The fables that have been propagated to cast this tragic misadventure as something other than a shameful failure cannot stand the test of what is happening.  Yet, the tales are kept afloat by those with a stake – political, doctrinal, careerist – in defying manifest truths, and by a citizenry that habitually prefers the comforts of a virtual reality to the harsh truth.

Three Fictions


The litany of rationalizations for viewing with equanimity the tragedy that is Iraq is ingrained in our minds by endless repetition.  Iraqis are better off today than they were under Saddam.  That’s one.  No one, though, has taken a poll of the Iraqis themselves – certainly not of the dead, the maimed, the orphaned (up to 1 million), the millions exiled.  The toll continues to mount; 7,800 Iraqis were killed in bombings and assassinations in 2013, i.e. a doubling from 2012 and the highest total since 2007. It was Washington that first made that cheerful appraisal on the Iraqis’ supposed behalf when the Bush administration decided on the invasion.  Is it for Americans to find consolation post-hoc by presuming to read the minds of Iraqis today after the events?

The Middle East is a safer place, and America more secure, because a bellicose tyrant who hated the United States will not be able to menace us (or our friends) in the future.  That is two.  In short, Saddam may have had no WMD program, and may have had nothing to do with al-Qaidi – but, just maybe, he might have in the future.  This is what is known as preemptive paranoia.  Even on its own warped terms, this proposition does not hold up.  Saddam’s secular regime was an implacable enemy of the Salafists.  It had fought an eight year war against the Islamic Republic of Iran, our other bête noir.  In the wake of Saddam’s fall, the most violent salafist groups, self-declared legions of al-Qaidi, are ensconced in Anbar province where, as if this writing, they and their allies hold Fallujah and sections of Ramadi – “liberated” in the battles of 2004.  They have benefited from the alienation from al-Maliki’s shi’ite directed government of those tribal leaders who spearheaded the sha-wah movement which turned on the salafists back in 2005-2007.

A democratic, pro-American Iraq was imagined as eclipsing the theocracy in Iran.  That is three.  Instead, the Islamic Republic has cozy relations with Baghdad.  The two governments collaborate on regional issues from the Syrian civil war to Lebanon to security in the Persian Gulf.  Their power grids are intertwined. These fellow shi’ite regimes are natural allies in the developing confrontation with the Arab sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia – whose members all are America’s allies in the region.  Saddam, by contrast, acted as a bulwark for the sunni Middle East – containing whatever ambitions the IRI might have had.

Does any of this fit with the narrative of an American success, albeit qualified, in Iraq? With the fable of the “Surge” having grasped victory from the jaws of imminent defeat?  No – of course not.  But reassuring fables die hard.  This is especially so when they are embodied by a flesh-and-blood “hero”: General David Petraeus.  For years, hymns of praise have been sung in his honor by the highest in the land, by the Pentagon establishment, by the worshipful media.  His great triumph, it is claimed, was the “Surge” which defeated al-Qaidi, ended the sunni uprising, and cleared the way for domestic peace and tranquility.

In truth, the essence of the sah’wah success was the local sunni tribes taking deep offense at the high-handed actions of the salfists who threatened the tribes’ integrity.  They took up arms – as early as 2005, two and-a-half years before the “Surge” – not for any liking of the Americans, or yearning for conciliation with the dominant shi’ite elements against whom sunnis were fighting a bloody civil war in Baghdad and elsewhere.  Money and arms helped firm up their resolve – as did later promises that their pensions and privileges would be restored by the government in Baghdad.  But American troops played no direct role in the effective campaign against the salafists in Anbar.  The “Surge” forces never even reached the province, instead being concentrated in and around Baghdad.  There, two other political dynamics were militating toward a lowering of casualty rates: a gradual winding down of the civil war (victory by the shi’ites), and Iran’s political mediation that produced a modus vivendi between the government and the dissident shi’ite militias of Muqtada al-Sadr in street battles with Maliki’s forces.

In the end, al-Maliki’s reneging on those pledges to the sunnis generated growing disaffection.  Violent confrontations between protesters and government forces embittered the sunnis, facilitating the revival of salafist groups like ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq & Syria) already emboldened by their growing strength across the border in Syria.  The United States has no friends in Iraq (the Kurds aside). No faction sees a communality of interest with Washington except on a crude tactical basis.  A final judgement on the outcome of the American intervention in Mesopotamia, we are told, must await the verdict of history.  It already is in.  Only the fabulists are blind to the writing on the wall.

What Is To Be Done?


What is Washington’s response to this downward spiral?  Military assistance to the al-Maliki government is one, i.e. attack helicopters, more munitions, perhaps a few drones.  Some propose that the United States could make a major difference in Anbar by providing air support. In fact, the weakness of the Maliki government has nothing to do with a shortage of firepower. Its dilemma is that a massive assault with the inescapable civilian casualties would trigger a wider Sunni revolt and strengthen the hand of ISIS. American F-16s in the sky could only accentuate the negative response. In addition, we ourselves learned early on that even deploying the full panoply of military weapons did not produce success against the insurrection – that took the revolt of the tribal leaders. The notion that guns are the first and best answer to security problems is a crude and simplistic idea which, unhappily, has survived a series of its demonstrable failures.

Then there is the chimera of “counter-terrorism” advisers. John McCain and the usual flock of shrill hawks are screaming for American boots on the ground.  We trained the Iraqi forces in counter-terrorism for seven years with the results now evident. It is inconceivable that sending back a few more American trainers now could do anything other than to alienate further the population.

One of the peculiarities of much American commentary about foreign affairs is the absence of memory. What happened in Iraq in the years after 2003 has as tenuous hold on the mind of some politicians, pundits and journalists as the Second Punic War. This is unfortunate since it deprives thinking about the current situation of perspective and context.

Underlying the current anxious discourse in Washington are two notions that have done enormous harm to American interests around the world. The first is that these situations are liable to a war-gaming approach wherein the key variables are tangible and static. We thereby try to derive a program whose effects can be traced and measured.  This approach bears the conceit of pseudo intellectualism, of bloodless exercises played out on computer screens and white boards.  In truth, the crucial variables are lodged in the minds of people. What goes on there cannot be war-gamed – either in Iraq or Afghanistan (where the 2009 “son-of-Surge” was based in part on Pentagon war games allegedly demonstrating that the only rational choice was to follow the brass’ plan for an escalation).

The other dangerous idea is that the United States has sound interest and reason to attempt to shape the outcome of the multi-player mayhem in Iraq or Syria – as we still insist on trying to do in Afghanistan. Yet one never sees a persuasive plan or, most certainly, a cogent assessment as to why it could succeed.  Rather, it is taken as an article of faith that American exertion and goodwill are sufficient, in themselves, to resolve those intricate puzzles.  Iran’s nuclear program, Israel/Palestine and Lebanon are also high on the overloaded agenda.  This formidable undertaking is all the more daunting for Washington’s piecemeal approach that insists on compartmentalizing each of these problems when, in fact, they are interlaced.

John Kerry personally has assumed the mantle of Special Envoy par excellence for every place in the Middle East – the Mary Poppins of world diplomacy.  This week he is in Montreux tending to Syria.  On the opening day, it quickly degenerated into a shambles.  Earlier he was in Baghdad – and may return there soon between his Israel shuttles.  If he does, he might wish to recall Gladstone’s farewell to “Chinese” Gordon as he embarked for Khartoum to deal with el Mahdi: “May God go with you – and I do not envy God.”

Michael Brenner



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