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The Independent Institute
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Obama Should Be Careful of a Slippery Slope Back into Iraq


As their massive sacrifices in the future of Iraq go up in flames (more than 4,000 American lives lost and greater than $1 trillion in taxpayer dollars wasted), Americans watch pundits on TV argue that their government did too little and abandoned Iraq too soon. For example, John McCain and his ubiquitous sidekick Lindsay Graham, both critics of President Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops at the end of 2011, wailed, with the usual imperial stridency of the American foreign policy cognoscenti, this “I told you so”: “Many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America’s enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national security interests.”

Even representatives of the American media buy into the “abandonment” argument. Jane Arraf, a freelance reporter for the Christian Science Monitor and Al Jazeera America and former CNN bureau chief in Baghdad, said on the PBS NewsHour on January 6, 2014, “I think while the West was ignoring Iraq, essentially, the country has become partitioned... one of the things we have to really talk about, I think, is the Sahwa, the Awakening, the tribes who turned against al-Qaida and fought with the American forces and then were essentially abandoned by the United States.”

The Obama administration, however, is caught between the interventionist foreign policy intelligentsia and a more sober American public, which has grown sick and tired of huge American losses in blood and treasure during more than 12 years of pointless overseas quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States, for once cooperating with Russia and Iran, is sending more military hardware to the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government to put down the al Qaida’s uprising, but this U.S. public opinion verdict compelled Secretary of State John Kerry to make this pledge: “We’re not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight.”

Yet remember President Woodrow Wilson claiming that he kept us out of World War I until he didn’t and President Lyndon B. Johnson claiming that American boys would not be sent to fight a war in Vietnam that Asian boys should be fighting? In Iraq, there may be a slippery slope to reintroducing U.S. troops to shore up the shaky Iraqi military, despite years and billions of dollars of U.S. training. General Colin Powell’s prescient warning to the Bush administration when he argued against the U.S. invasion of the country—“If you break it, you’ve bought it”—came true and may do so yet again. The United States bought Iraq for almost nine years and extricated itself only because the Iraqi government kicked it out by refusing to agree to the rather imperial demand that residual U.S. forces would continue to be exempt from Iraqi law. Unfortunately, the United States, by increasing the flow of U.S. weapons to the unsteady Iraqi government to put down a raging al Qaida movement, may be in line for a repurchase.

And the foreign policy elite are pressuring for just that. On the same PBS NewsHour show, James Jeffrey, Obama’s former Ambassador to Iraq, argued:

I would disagree with—respectfully, with Secretary Kerry. This is our fight. We fought there in 2004. And we fought there to in part drive al-Qaida out after they established a foothold. The Maliki government, for all of its problems, is still a government that is a quasi-ally of ours.... And it’s in our interest not to allow al-Qaida to establish another foothold.... And we’re taking pretty good actions, with the additional equipment, the drones, the Hellfire missiles, the advice, the intelligence and such.... We probably need to do more.

Yet none of the pundits who promote the U.S. “abandonment” line, implying that the United States needs to take more rigorous action in Iraq, seems to remember that the U.S. invasion created al Qaida in Iraq in the first place. And al Qaida in Iraq has now moved into Syria and is helping to destabilize that country by joining the brutal civil war. The abandonment argument was also applied in the 1990s to Afghan rebels the United States supported against the Soviet invaders in the 1980s—seemingly saying that had the U.S. continued to funnel more weapons and aid to what would eventually spawn the main trunk of al Qaida, which perpetrated the 9/11 attacks in America, things would have turned out better.

U.S. intervention in the first place, not abandonment, is the real problem. The U.S. 13-year, nation-building intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11 destabilized a nuclear-armed Pakistan, which created the Pakistani Taliban. The U.S. drone war against that group reportedly motivated the group to attack the United States in the Times Square bombing attempt. The United States’ armed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya has led to chaos in that country, now effectively ruled by roaming tribal militias, and destabilized the much of the entire surrounding region—with radical Islamists using Gaddafi’s huge weapons stockpiles to destabilize neighboring countries, including Mali and Algeria. With this intervention track record, why do the pundits believe that any further U.S. meddling in Iraq will help the situation?

Ms. Arraf did make one astute observation though: “I think it’s completely clear Iraqis do not want to see U.S. troops. I also don’t think it’s clear though that Hellfire missiles and drones are the answer. I mean, this really is a region that feels that it’s not a part of Iraq. It’s not just a matter, really, of al-Qaida controlling Fallujah. It’s a matter of, is this country actually even going to work?”

Iraq has been an artificial country since the British created it after World War I to get its oil. The Kurdish and Sunni and Shi’ite Arab groups have never really wanted to be part of the same country but were held together by strong Sunni governments. That stability ended with the foolish invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As noted in my 2009 book, Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, the U.S. should have negotiated among the three groups a “soft,” peaceful partition of the country, creating a loose confederation of the three regions. The important aspect was to create a weak central government so that the groups would not fight over control of it. Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s subsequent oppressive actions against Sunnis, which inflamed the al-Qaida uprising, demonstrate why decentralizing Iraqi governance was paramount. In the book, I warned that without a soft partition, a hard partition would result from war. That predicted outcome is now occurring.

However, it is too late for the United States to remedy its error, and funneling more weapons to one side in the conflict will merely result in more dead Iraqis. Despite the emotional guilt the U.S. foreign policy intelligentsia seems to have about Iraq, the United States has little strategic interest in whether a regional al Qaida affiliate, which focuses its attention on Shi’ite oppression of Sunnis in Iraq, takes over part of the country. In fact, if anything, helping the Shi’ite government could motivate that regional branch of al Qaida to begin attacking targets in the United States, as did the Pakistani Taliban. Therefore, the United States should be wary of further helping the oppressive al-Maliki government.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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