Iraq: Damned if we do, damned if we don't

We can't afford to walk away from Iraq. A look at how we got here and where we might go next.
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U.S. faces no good options in Iraq

We can't afford to walk away from Iraq. A look at how we got here and where we might go next.

The current crisis in Iraq, atop the continuing crisis in Ukraine/Crimea, should be sufficient to shift our attention from the Washington Redskins nickname and the upcoming midterm elections.

As we view these war-peace issues, we would do well to forget their near-term impacts on Democrats' or Republicans' political prospects, the lens through which mainstream and cable news journalists present everything these days. No, they bear watching through the larger lens of history. And they offer little reason for optimism.

To begin with, we in the U.S. see these issues from an entirely different vantage point than the countries and groups we view as upsetters of a rule-of-law, ordered international regime. (This will take a while to explain, so return to the Redskins and partisan politics if the subject bores you.)

Pre-modern history was mainly a story of ethnic groups and tribes trying to enlarge or protect their own regions. Then came the colonial era in which developed countries, in Europe in particular, strove to accumulate financial and economic power and vital resources by grabbing Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Latin American territory. 

Before World War I, the colonizers saw nothing but peace and prosperity ahead for their own European continent. You could travel across European borders without a passport. There were rivalries and tensions between the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire, but nothing, it was thought, that could lead to war. The colonized were seen as lower-caste hewers of wood and drawers of water at the service of their colonial masters.

But the tragedies of World Wars I and II not only shattered all major developed countries but the United States, which emerged the only true economic and political winner. Those conflicts shattered colonialism and created a new world order. In it, the most powerful nations — think of them as today's Group of Seven, plus Russia — continued to have the strongest voice in world affairs, but emergent countries had a place at the table. Within those emergent countries, some of which acquired nuclear weapons, ethnic and religious rivalries often outweighed loyalties to newly established nationhood. 

Which brings us to Iraq.

Almost 100 years ago Great Britain drew arbitrary lines across a map to form that country. The lines included northern Kurds, western Sunni-Muslims and eastern Shiite Muslims. There was no logical reason to put these groups into the same country, except for the convenience of British administrators.

As the post-colonial era moved on, Iraq remained one country, held together — as many others in similar situations — by a ruthless strong man, Saddam Hussein. Saddam, a Sunni, included a few Kurds and Shiites in his government. But real power resided with him and his Sunni-dominated Baath party. 

Oil revenue kept the country running. Saddam undertook chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs to establish Iraq's position in the region. He won a bloody, extended war against Shiite Iran, then went too far by invading Kuwait and threatening neighboring Saudi Arabia. 

In response, President George H.W. Bush led a coalition against Saddam. The multinational offensive afforded the northern Kurds protection and semi-autonomy, gave Shiites a measure of cover and grossly degraded Saddam's military capability. But it left Saddam in power. 

After that first Gulf War, Saddam continued to boast of his chemical, biological and nuclear-weapons programs.  As it turned out, they never got restarted. Saddam was just trying to frighten his regional rivals. Even his generals believed that these weapons existed, under some other general's jurisdiction. We know now they did not.

Gulf War II, as it turned out, was a blunder as big as the U.S. intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s. In both cases, U.S. policymakers totally misread the situations in those countries. Vietnam was seen as part of the Cold War. It was instead an internal conflict that did not involve American vital interests. 

Iraq was seen as a regional threat led by a tyrant who might make turn his weapons of mass destruction against, among others, Israel. When George W. Bush launched his war against Iraq, it was broadly supported by, among others, then-Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. All agreed that Iraq's possession of WMD made war necessary. Only later did we learn that the WMD programs no longer existed. Iraq, like Vietnam, posed no threat to American vital interests.

Since President Woodrow Wilson's time, America has presumed that the world would prefer to live as we do. Thus, after the second Gulf War, we aimed to establish a more democratic Iraq, in which Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites would live together and the rule of law would prevail, where leaders would be chosen in free national elections in an evolution toward a more secular state. 

That same Iraq, naturally, would be a strong ally of the U.S. and other western countries, provide a counter-balance to Iran, and keep its oil flowing to western markets. Our troop presence gradually would be reduced and only a small residual force left behind to help maintain our leverage in the country and help the elected government fight off any jihadist uprisings. In the meantime, Saddamites were expunged, the Sunni-dominated army purged and Baath Party officials banned from the new regime.

Elections took place. War damage was repaired. But the Shiite Prime Minister Maliki failed to take the inclusionary steps we expected. 

Kurds in the north maintained semi-autonomy. But just as Saddam imposed Sunni rule on the Shiites, Maliki now imposed Shiite rule on the Sunnis. The U.S. failed to reach a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq, so we pulled our troops out of the country, reducing our leverage. Al Qaida-related jihadists mobilized in eastern Syria and western Iraq, picking up Sunni support along the way. Having made huge territorial gains in the north and west, and seized billions in Iraqi assets and huge stockpiles of U.S.-supplied weapons and vehicles, they are now on the march to Baghdad.

That brings us, finally, to the U.S. policy review last week and to President Obama's announcement that several hundred U.S. advisors would be in Iraq to help coordinate fighting against the Jihadists. Maliki understandably had requested and gotten mobilization by Iraqi Shiite militia to help hold off the aggressors.

Obama made clear that Maliki, as a condition of our help, would have to establish the inclusionary government we originally sought. But, in truth, the U.S. now is in the game not just to sustain the Maliki government but to protect what truly have become American vital interests. 

Job One, right now, is stop the aggression by the jihadists. No matter what else takes place, we cannot let huge chunks of Iraq and Syria come under jihadist control and turn into a base for aggression against neighboring countries as well as our homeland. We cannot let these forces be financed by seized oil resources.

It would be good if Maliki, or his successor, could form the kind of regime we envision. But there is no guarantee it will happen. Nor is there any guarantee that the advancing jihadist forces can be stopped without greater infusion of U.S. forces and the active involvement of Shiite militias — perhaps even the involvement of regular Iranian forces.

Several future scenarios are now being spun for Iraq. 

The first is for a unitary federal republic in which all ethnic and religious groups are represented and pledge loyalty to the overall state. In other words, what the U.S. wanted in the beginning. 

The second is for a breakup of the country into Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni pieces. Such a partitioning would create huge problems for Kurdish neighbors such as Turkey; the Kurds want to form a Kurdistan taking territory from other countries. 

The third outcome is for a Shiite-dominated regime closely allied to Iran. Optimists believe that, down the road, a liberalizing Iran might not be the threat it is today, and that an Iran-dominated Iraq would be better than a jihadist-dominated Iraq.

None of these scenarios is likely to happen. The best to hope for, realistically, is that the present jihadist offensive can be beaten back without major infusions of U.S. forces and that, afterward, an Iraqi government — led by Maliki or someone else — takes steps to prevent further such offensives by bringing Sunnis, in particular, more fully into the decision-making process.

The worst alternative, of course, is that Iraq becomes a Vietnam-like sinkhole where only a sizable U.S. force can defeat the insurgency, with the Iraqi government changing leaders during the years in which we do the fighting.

Whether you Kurd, Shiite or Sunni, historical memory leads you to see U.S. and other western involvements in the region as semi-colonialist and driven by access to Iraqi oil. Better the Americans than the other guys, you may think, but only for a brief period until we can throw them out. A flowering federal state, including ethnic and religious groups, which hate each other, standing next to a beloved Uncle Sam. Get outta here. Obama's warnings about what we must do, or else. Surely he jests.

We can't afford to walk away from Iraq. Nor, as much as we would like to do so, can we afford to completely withdraw from Afghanistan, as is now planned for 2015. The locals in both places want us out. We want out. But we cannot afford a replay in Afghanistan of the events now taking place in Iraq. Like it or not, we must maintain at least a token residual force to sustain the leverage there which we forfeited in Iraq.

This all goes beyond Democrats and Republicans, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It has to do with the reality of the world and the prices we sometimes must pay to defend our vital interests and keep our country safe. We're not exempt from history.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of