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June 16, 2014

America's Iraq Bet Goes Bust

Events are moving pretty fast in Iraq but it looks like a large swath of the country is under at least the nominal control of The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist organization. As the name implies itís a group that has been fighting in both Iraq and Syria so what we are seeing is the melding of the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars.

So far the group, which is an organization that seems to have been split off from the main al Qaeda forces in the region because they were considered too fanatical, have overrun Iraqís second largest city, the oil hub of Mosul, and is expanding through the ďSunni triangleĒ area including Saddam Husseinís home region of Tikrit.

Reports are now indicating that the group is rolling towards Baghdad. Along the way we are seeing scenes reminiscent of the Iraqi Army retreat after US forces kicked the out of Kuwait.

People on the right will want to blame President Obama for the current crisis in Iraq for his decision to remove US troops from the country and are blaming him for ďlosing IraqĒ.

The simple fact of the matter is the Bush administration bet that regime change in Iraq would strengthen US security and further our interests in the region. Events are proving that theory wrong.

When liberals criticized the Iraq war during its prosecution and in the immediate aftermath of its conclusion (from a US combat perspective) they were quick to label it a failure. Supporters of the war, and here I include myself, argued that it would take decades to truly measure the success or failure of the war. It appears that was overly optimistic.

Remember why we went to war in Iraq (beyond the WMD argument)Öin the wake of the September 11th attacks America realized our Mideast policy of propping up dictatorships was failing miserably. Al Qaeda was seen in the region not as the barbarous band of Muslim murderers they subsequently showed themselves to be, but as the only force effectively fighting regional dictators and their American sponsors.


Bush, I think correctly, diagnosed the problem and realized we needed to offer a competing narrative to win over the people of the region. Iraq, with its underutilized oil resources, reasonably educated population and historical significance in the region would serve as an example for the rest of the Muslim nations of the Mideast. Remove the dictatorship, the argument went, and with help and guidance from the US the country would flourish. This would be our answer to the Strong Horse/Weak Horse narrative bin Laden had been selling for a decade. In addition, weíd turn a country that had been a terrorist haven into a fighting ally against these very groups.

It was a reasonable play considering the stat of the world and the options available to us. It offered up the possibility of changing the game in a region where our policy had grown stale and began producing far too many costs for too few benefits.
But like any opportunity that presents possibility of great gains, it also entailed great risks of equally high or higher losses.

Unfortunately, it appears we are going to reap the losses.

The problem is not that Americans did not do enough or that if we had only kept tens of thousands of US troops there fighting and training for an indefinite time things would work out better. Itís becoming very clear that the Iraqi people themselves are far less interested in their future than we needed them to be to make this plan work.

When 800 terrorists can force 30,000 army troops in to full retreat and the nationís Parliament canít rouse itself into emergency session while the country faces an existential threat, something is deeply wrong and itís beyond our power to fix it.

Whether itís the result of the post-invasion failures and the prolonged fight with insurgents, the small, revenge minded nature of political figures in Iraq (if anyone can be said to have lost Iraq (in the greater and immediate senses), it's longtime PM Nuri al-Maliki), irreconcilable ethnic tensions, the damage done by decades of brutal dictatorship, ďIraqĒ as a nation is more a post WWI fiction than we thought, or all of these factors and more, Iraq has not proven to be the fertile soil for a Mideast/liberal, western friendly democratic hybrid this effort foresaw as the outcome. We cast our lot with people unwilling or unable to meet the opportunity we presented them with.

Some supporters of the war will lay the blame for the collapse of the Iraq bet on Barack Obama and as I said, this is to a large extent unfair.

Obama ran for President explicitly saying the Iraq war was a blunder and that he would get the US out as soon as he could. John McCain ran against him saying the US could and should stay in Iraq for 100 years if thatís what it took.

Inconveniently and unwisely, the American people voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. But vote for him and his explicit pledge to end the war in Iraq they did. To now claim that he should have cast aside that promise strikes me as arrogant and unethical.

A nation like America cannot fight a war without popular support and the election of 2008 (and 2006 before it) clearly represented an informed choice by the American people. To now demand that Obama or any President wage a war in direct conflict with the wishes of the American people and their explicit campaign promises is deeply cynical and contemptuous of our dearest principles.

Itís important to remember that we left Iraq on a time frame negotiated by George W. Bush. Yes, Obama could have tried harder to extend that deadline but again, he ran on just the opposite idea. Itís the height of arrogance to demand that someone who beat you in an election now turn around and adopt your rejected policy.

By the same token Bush could have negotiated a deal that lasted longer and tied Obamaís hands but to his credit he didnít. Bush wasnít able to build the conditions on the ground that would have forced Democrats to accept that their opposition was wrong and that they needed to buy into this project. He seems to have understood that the American people werenít going to give a policy that needed decades to play out anything like that much time. Had the immediate post-invasion period gone better and Iraq been on a clearer path to a better future perhaps voters would have demanded Obama or any Democrat give it more time, but it didnít work out that way
.
The idea behind the Iraq invasion was always to destabilize the status quo in the region and it did that. But that is always a gamble it's impossible to know or control how a seismic upheaval like this will turnout. By definition gambling involves a greater risk of loss than it does a win or everyone would do it.

Bush took a huge chance in the hopes of reaping even larger rewards. I supported him doing so and still think based on the situation we faced at the time it was the right risk/reward calculation. Sometimes things just donít work out the way you had hoped they would.

This is at the root of my problem with those who seem to support just about every opportunity to use military force that comes along. The risk of unleashing forces that can't be controlled or predicted, not to mention the human costs, are great. Like so many other things in the 1990s we were spoiled by the relative ease with which we were able to shape events using military force (Panama, Kuwait, the Balkans and the occasional air strike/cruise missile attack against Iraq. Somalia being the notable exception). This is not to say that military action is never warranted or worth the risk, far from it. But as conservatives (in the temperamental not simply political sense) we need to be honest about the potential unknown consequences of our actions and accept responsibility for our choices.

In the Mideast we've tried propping up dictators and then offering the chance of freedom and liberty. Neither has worked out and now we are seeing war from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. We need a Plan C and quick. Regardless of how Obama felt about the war in Iraq and how he feels events may have proven him right, itís incumbent upon him to find a way to deal with events as they are.

Presidents are faced with hard decisions on matters not of their own making all the time. Just because this one gave a speech against the war in Iraq back in 2003 doesnít absolve him from the duty to act now.


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posted by DrewM. at 11:41 AM

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