Iraq: A Massive Failure of Understanding

Right From the Start

This past weekend brought the close of the Iraqi war – at least our participation in it. When the history of the war is written, it will focus on two enormous mistakes. Both mistakes cost us dearly in terms of young lives lost and international prestige diminished.

Those with little to do continue to rehash the original decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. Everyone had the same intelligence, the overwhelming majority of Congress agreed with President George W. Bush that Saddam Hussein posed a national security threat and needed to be removed. It is only in the political aftermath that those seeking to disavow their previous support of the invasion have seized upon a faulty report of Saddam’s attempt to buy uranium in Africa as justification for renouncing their previous support. That piece of information was a tiny tile in a mosaic of proven repression, genocide, terrorist support and pursuit and use of weapons of mass destruction.


The invasion of Iraq to destroy its military capabilities, eliminate its stores of weapons, disable its intelligence system, and capture and/or kill its leadership was the right thing to do. It was done swiftly, competently and completely with minimal loss of life. With the capture of Saddam Hussein in December of 2003, the participation of the United States should have ended – regime change had been accomplished permanently.


But two costly mistakes were made.


First, Mr. Bush, contrary to the advice of his father, Pres. George H.W. Bush, decided to engage in nation building. His purpose was laudable. The idea of establishing a democratic government in a region dominated by hereditary despots, revolutionary despots and theocratic despots was designed to spread the light of freedom across a region that had experienced very little freedom for over 1500 years. But therein lies the rub.


The Middle East has been engaged in religious warfare for 1500 years. Most often, it is the Shiites versus the Sunnis. Periodically the Kurds are attacked by either or both the Shiites and the Sunnis. The people of the region have been oppressed by despots loyal to one version of Islam or the other. This repression takes the form of revolutionary despots like Saddam who aligned himself with a Sunni minority to repress a Shiite majority; or the Saudi Kingdom which pays the Sunni clergy to take their hate somewhere else; or Iran where the clerics themselves have installed and control a despot like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These despotic regimes maintain a form of order by simply repressing all. When those despotic regimes are removed, 1500 years of tribal/religious hatred arise immediately and intense and brutal ethnic combat returns.


The idea that a Western style democracy will be embraced by all factions of ancient hatred is something only the incredibly naïve, including the State Department, can envision. (The most recent evidence of this kind of naivete is the comment by Vice-president Joe Biden that the Taliban are “not our enemy.”) Add to that the fact that Islamic clerics have been instilling hatred for all things Western in generation after generation and targeting the United States as the Great Satan and one wonders what flight of fancy imbued Mr. Bush and his advisors to conclude that “nation building” would take root.


But even at that, Mr. Bush kept a tight focus on achieving his laudable goal. The presence of our armed forces in the roles of warrior, peacekeeper, and teacher/model of the results of democracy not only held the tribal warfare at bay, but also gave some evidence that the hate spread by their clerics and leaders was inappropriate. Mr. Bush believed that, within a reasonable time, responsibility for preserving a nascent democracy and peacekeeping among the competing tribal/religious factions could be transferred to the Iraqi government. Perhaps he was right but the timeline would be decades not years and months. Regional history was simply against a rapid ascent to democracy.


The second mistake was the decision by President Barack Obama to “cut and run.” Mr. Obama, like most on the far left, view the United States as an oppressor rather than a force for peace and stability. He promised during his campaign to withdraw from Iraq thus ending its “oppressor” role. But, having made the promise, he dallied for three years to accomplish it. That was three years during which the forces of tribal/religious hatred could mark time, gather their forces, and mine the riches of America while killing its soldiers. The movement towards democracy ended with Mr. Obama’s election and was replaced by a waiting game.


Iraq became like Vietnam – another war that the politicians in charge had no intention of winning and conducted themselves to avoid the appearance of losing. If you are intent on a “cut and run” strategy then do it and get it over with. The three-year dawdle toward ending America’s participation in Iraq is unconscionable.

The lives lost after the election of Mr. Obama should weigh heavily on his conscience as a sacrifice of innocent life for an act of political deception.

Already, the forces of tribal/religious hatred are apparent in Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has begun the systematic purging of all Sunnis from the Iraqi government and has ordered the arrest of the senior Sunni politician, Vice-president Tariq al-Hamashi. Sunni hit squads have begun the killing of Shiites and Shiite hit squads have begun the killing of Sunnis. While Saddam Hussein aligned himself with the Sunnis to repress the Shiites, Mr. al-Maliki has made it clear that he will align himself with the Shiites to repress the Sunnis. Mr. al-Maliki has also begun a dance with the Iranian government which will result in it being drawn into the ambit of the Shia’s regional ambition – further adding to the tensions and concerns of the Sunni nations surrounding it.


It’s a mess and getting worse because of the ineptitude of the current administration – an administration that thinks “spin” will obviate action. The fawning over the “Arab Spring” is about to morph into the horror of theocratic repression.


What should be done is relatively simple. We should recognize that the geographical, religious and economic history of the Middle East is something that cannot be altered by force from the West. We would be far better off by isolating the region economically (stop our reliance on Middle East oil) by developing our own natural resources. We should refrain from using our overwhelming military resources except in instances where the activity of one of those nations threatens our national security. And in such instances the use of force should be immediate and decisive in eliminating that threat. The aftermath of that elimination should be left to the citizens of that nation as to their conduct for the future.


If I am proven wrong and Iraq, or Afghanistan, or, for that matter, any of the nations effected by the Arab Spring, should result in a sustainable democratic form of government, it will represent a sea change in 1500 years of tribal/religious repression.


In the end we should all thank our heroic military members for their unwavering courage and extraordinary skills. It is too bad that our politicians lack either.