Iraq, Where History Began in January 2009

by Michael Dorf

A little bit less than a year ago, I wrote a post comparing the circumstances of a sports fan deciding which non-home-town team to favor to the circumstances of U.S. foreign policy makers deciding on which side, if any, to support in a foreign armed conflict. I made special reference to the Spurs-Heat NBA Finals and to the conflict in the Middle East. Now, a year later, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

I can be brief about basketball. I reported that in last year's NBA Finals I was initially ambivalent about the outcome but found myself cheering for the Spurs. This year my enthusiasm for the Spurs has been unequivocal based partly on the sense that they deserved it, having come so close last year, and partly on my admiration for their team play. I don't hate the Heat--and I found the criticism of Lebron James for getting severe muscle cramps in game 1 idiotic--but having watched way too much basketball in my lifetime, I have rarely seen a team that moves the ball as beautifully as the Spurs do.

From the sublime to the tragic. Last July, I (along with a whole lot of other people) worried that proposed U.S. military intervention in the Syrian civil war--which was then being urged by various pundits and politicians--could have serious unintended consequences: The most serious of these would be that the overthrow or serious weakening of Assad probably would not lead to multi-party multi-ethnic democracy but to the partial substitution of a brutal al Q'aeda-linked government for Assad's brutal Iranian-backed regime. Something like that appears to be happening now, except that it has happened without further U.S. intervention and mostly not in Syria but next door in Iraq.

I have repeatedly heard American commentators use words like "tangled" or "twisted" to describe the situation in Syria and Iraq. What they mean is something like this: In Syria, the U.S. has been very tepidly supporting mostly Sunni rebels against the Iranian-backed Alawite regime of Assad, while trying to keep its distance from al Q'aeda, al Nusra, and ISIS Islamists; meanwhile, in Iraq, the U.S. and Iran are both scrambling to find ways to support the mostly Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. There are further complexities, such as the role of the Kurds (for now mostly appreciated by the U.S., al-Maliki, and Iran), even as Kurdish movements elsewhere are viewed warily by the U.S. (in Turkey) and Iran (in Iran). And all of this is going on while the U.S. and European allies are engaged in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, with Russia helping to broker those talks and the chemical weapons deal in Syria, even as Russia and the West are in conflict over Ukraine.

Confusing? Sure, but only if you view all international political and military conflict as rotating around an American axis. In fact, there are multiple axes, including: Shia versus Sunni; Secular versus Theocratic; Western versus non-Western; and many more. Given the complexity and local specificity of these conflicts, expecting it to be easy to identify which side to support on a consistent basis would be a little like going to the Amazon rain forest at the height of the Cold War, finding an inter-tribal war, and deciding to support the "anti-communist" side or still more preposterously, the "pro-U.S." side. There is simply no such thing.

Perhaps the most ridiculous claims over the last week have come from the anti-Obama right. The leading such claim goes like this: By failing to leave a critical mass of U.S. supporting troops in Iraq when the U.S. withdrew in 2011, Obama squandered the progress that had been made in stabilizing Iraq, thus opening the door to just what we are now seeing. The fact that this claim comes mostly from the shameless politicians and pundits who were so specatacularly wrong about Iraq in the past is galling enough. The claim also tends to ignore the fact that the Iraqi government would not grant U.S. personnel immunity from Iraqi jurisdiction--a condition on which the U.S. military insisted--but even if we put that issue aside, the whole argument is mostly based on magical thinking. Here is David Brooks on Friday (unwittingly vindicating Prof. Buchanan's simultaneous call for the abolition of the job of NYT regular columnist):
We now have two administrations in a row that committed their worst foreign policy blunders in Iraq. By withdrawing too quickly from Iraq, by failing to build on the surge, the Obama administration has made some similar mistakes made during the early administration of George W. Bush, except in reverse. The dangers of American underreach have been lavishly and horrifically displayed.
The best thing that can be said for that whopper is at least Brooks didn't say that the Obama adiministration's worst foreign policy blunder was in Benghazi.  Still, Brooks, who has carved out a niche for himself as a "moderate" or "reasonable" conservative, here displays his "moderation" by tempering his criticism of Obama with criticism of Bush, but the equivalence itself shows how low the bar is for counting as a moderate. Obama's failure to press harder for terms under which to leave a rump U.S. force in Iraq in 2011 may or may not have played some role in emboldening ISIS now, but the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and then to dismantle the Iraqi army was a tsunami in comparison.

Even assuming with Senators McCain and Graham (cited by Brooks as prophets and called out in the story linked above for being wrong many times before) that Iraqi history began in January 2009, suppose that the U.S. did still have a few thousand troops on the ground in Iraq right now. Would their presence have prevented the Iraqi army from melting away in the face of the ISIS advance? President Bush said in 2005 that "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." That's right, 2005. The Brooks-McCain-Graham view of the world says that although eight years of occupation (from 2003 to 2011) was not enough to get the Iraqis to "stand up," another three years under (reduced) American tutelage (2011 to 2014) would have been just the ticket to transform them into a coherent fighting machine--the San Antonio Spurs of warfare. Isn't it MUCH MUCH MUCH more likely that the Iraqi army would have remained ineffective, and that a continued U.S. troop presence now in Iraq would have led to a direct confrontation between U.S. troops and ISIS? Would American troops be fighting in joint missions with Iranian al quds brigades?

None of this is to suggest that I think President Obama's Middle East policy is perfect. But two points seem clear. First, it is wildly unfair to contrast the actual messy world that emerges from any decision to the hypothetical fantasy world that might have emerged from a contrary decision. (And yes, I admit that this is also true with respect to the counterfactual world in which Saddam Hussein remained in power; it too could have been very ugly.)

Second, as between the risks of too-eager use of military force and too-hesitant use, the hawks should have the burden of proof. The history of U.S. military engagement in the Muslim world over the last half century is filled with blowback: support for two generations of Shahs metastasizing into the Islamic Republic of Iran; support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan giving rise to the Taliban and training grounds for al Q'aeda; support for dictators in Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere fueling anti-Americanism everywhere; overthrowing one of those dictators (in Iraq) unleashing sectarian violence and empowering other U.S. antagonists; and that's not even mentioning the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Is it possible that the next use of U.S. military force in the Middle East could actually work out well? Sure, it's possible. But given the strong possibility that any such use of force would cause more harm than good, is it worth spending American blood and treasure on such a mission? As between the risks of military overreach and what Brooks calls "underreach", any president would be wise to prefer the latter.

Barack Obama is president today in no small part because of a speech he gave in October 2002, stating that while he was not against all wars, he was against "dumb" ones, by which he meant the then-looming invasion of Iraq. What made that war "dumb" was partly the lack of a legitimate casus belli: Saddam has nukes (he didn't); Saddam is linked to al Q'aeda (he wasn't); Saddam violated the human rights of his own people (he did, but for much of the relevant period he was a U.S. ally); toppling Saddam will bring a flowering of democracy to the Middle East (it didn't, and when democracy came, it led back to military dictatorship--Egypt--or civil war--Syria--or, at best, hard times--Tunisia).

But the lack of a justification for going to war in Iraq was not the only thing that made the war "dumb." Ironically, going back to war in Iraq now would be justified, both legally--if the U.S. were to respond to the elected government's request for help--and morally--because, having broken Iraq, we have some ongoing responsibility to fix it. But that still wouldn't make anything more than the limited use of air power smart. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was dumb because it was not justified (as some of us said at the time), but also because, even if it had been justified, it foreseeably would have led to the post-war chaos to which it in fact led.  (Who foresaw this? Dick Cheney in 1991, among others.) 

There really are no good options for the U.S. in Iraq right now, but that doesn't mean there aren't more and less terrible ones. In general, if the use of military force seems as likely to cause harm as it is to do good, then military force should not be used.