Obama’s impossible choices on Iraq

June 16, 2014

Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants, chant slogans in Baghdad

Iraq was a bold U.S. experiment in nation-building. It turned out to be a flop.

That’s what we’re learning as we watch what the United States achieved there evaporate after nine years of war, after nearly 4,500 Americans were killed, 32,000 wounded and $800 billion in U.S. taxpayer money spent.

When George W. Bush first ran for president in 2000, he expressed contempt for nation-building. It was a point he made in rally after rally. “I’m worried about the fact I’m running against a man,” Bush said, “who uses ‘military’ and ‘nation-building’ in the same sentence.”

BUSH, CHENEY AND RUMSFELD ARRIVE TO SPEAK AT THE PENTAGON.But what were U.S. troops doing in Iraq four years later if not nation-building?

The U.S. military can do many things supremely well. They are all military things — like fighting wars, repelling invasions and providing security. But nation-building — the task that devolved upon them in both Iraq and Afghanistan — is political, not military. And politics is not something the military can do very well. Nor should anyone expect it to.

The United States spent a fortune on training and equipping the Iraqis.  But Iraqi soldiers just laid down their arms and surrendered to the jihadist invaders in northern Iraq. “The problem is not advice.  The problem is not arms and equipment.  They’ve got a load of this stuff,” Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Politico.  “The problem is they don’t fight. . . . There’s nothing to fight for because they don’t believe in the government.”

Washington expected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to build a consensus government in Iraq.  But he was ill-equipped and unwilling to do so. Maliki is the leader of a Shi’ite political party. He has been distrustful and suspicious of Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities and has done little to share power with them. As a result, the minorities feel little loyalty to the Iraqi government and are unwilling to fight for its survival.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki speaks during a news conference in BaghdadIraq is disintegrating. The civil war in Syria is precipitating a civil war in Iraq between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, with Kurds seizing the opportunity to establish their own autonomous, if not independent, state. It’s an impossible choice for the United States.  The Shi’ites are supported by Iran, the Sunnis by al Qaeda.

The Bush administration actually believed we could export democracy to the Middle East. Bush announced the “Bush Doctrine” in 2005, in his second Inaugural Address. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” Bush declared. “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Set aside the fact that that is an arguable proposition. Would the United States really be more secure if countries like Saudi Arabia became democracies? When Egypt and Gaza held democratic elections, Islamist parties won. Nor is it by any means clear that U.S. policymakers understand enough about other countries’ politics to somehow turn them into functioning democracies.

What is clear is that the American public hates political wars. Americans believe the U.S. military should be used to win military victories — not to intervene in other countries’ politics or keep unreliable foreign governments in power.   Which is exactly what the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan — and Vietnam.

“We certainly don’t want to fight their fight,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week, “because you’d be fighting for a dysfunctional, unrepresentative, authoritarian government.  There’s no reason on earth that I know of that we would ever sacrifice a single American life for that.”

Now President Barack Obama is facing his own impossible choice. We will almost certainly be forced to intervene in Iraq. “We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria,” Obama said last week.

A man walks past near remains of burnt vehicles belonging to Iraqi security forces in the northern Iraq city of MosulThe president has promised not to send ground troops. But it is unclear what air strikes can accomplish. We will need special operations forces and intelligence agents on the ground to identify targets. And we may have to strike targets in Syria.

The debate over “Who lost Iraq? has already begun in the United States.  Republicans blame Obama for pulling out of Iraq too soon, though the decision to withdraw U.S. troops in 2011 was overwhelmingly popular.  “Our failure to leave forces in Iraq is why . . . I predicted this would happen,” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.

But what could U.S. troops do? “We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we’re there, we’re keeping a lid on things,” Obama said.

It was really Maliki who lost Iraq. It was hopelessly naive for Washington to believe that the United States could somehow turn a sectarian politician like Maliki into a model democrat.

The United States is skilled at exporting arms and equipment and advice. We are no good at all at exporting democratic politics.



PHOTO (TOP): Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants, who have taken over Mosul and other Northern provinces, chant slogans in Baghdad, June 14, 2014. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

PHOTO (INSERT 1): President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney (C) and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrive to speak at the Pentagon, May 10, 2004. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

 PHOTO (INSERT 3): Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki speaks during a news conference in Baghdad, August 12, 2007. REUTERS/Iraqi Government office/Handout

PHOTO (INSERT 4): A man walks past near remains of burnt vehicles belonging to Iraqi security forces in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 13, 2014.  REUTERS/Stringer


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Terrorists and religious zealots are a tiny minority of the world population, yet we allow them to keep millions of people in crisis and chaos around the world. Global terrorism is a reality and we need a global special forces solution to wipe them out before they can destroy more societies. Their archaic ideas have no place in today’s world.

Posted by njglea | Report as abusive

Leaving a small but significant force of U.S. troops in Iraq, combined with a significant bombing campaign against Assad, would have been a big help to prevent what’s happening in Iraq now.

Schneider compares what’s happening now with Vietnam, to support the argument that the U.S. military isn’t good at building nations. But what happened in Vietnam really argues for the opposite: Nixon had achieved a realistic peace agreement with the North, and the South had a viable government as well as military. But while the USSR and China gave major help to the communists, Democrats in Congress cut off funding to support the South in 1973, after there were no more American troops in Vietnam. Two years after the cutoff of this support, the North was able to overrun the South and the Khmer Rouge overran the non-communists in Cambodia. The results were disastrous.

It’s not too late to bomb Assad, though it would have been better to do it last year before the extremists had such a major foothold.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

your 2 societies are so far removed from one another, geographically, culturally, politically and in mind set, that it would seem to show a great lack of judgement, intelligence and wisdom to even contemplate intervening in the journey that Iraq is undertaking now.

economic powerhouses like the States have so much work to do on their own soil to foster a vibrant healthy society, and simultaneously work to ensure their land, and natural resources endure to feed her people, that it is absurd to dilute your focus and intent.

could it not be said that modern economic powerhouses have little to teach the peoples of the world when it comes to sound models of sustainable growth. we as peoples of the world have to unite in spirit to meet the stressors that unbridled development have placed on mankind’s sheer existence. and we all seem to share the mindset, that all is fine. leave Iraq in its perpetual turmoil and develop models at home that are sound, and can be shared with other societies to promote a nascent future for Mankind.

Posted by fyaox | Report as abusive

The article is a little bit goofy. “The Shia are supported by Iran, but Sunni by Al Quaida.” Actually, the sunni are supported by Saudi Arabia and all sunni dominated countries. The fact that Al Quaida is active means little, at this point it is only a brand name. The real issue here is how the Maliki government disenfranchised the Sunni and continued to persecute them. It is sheer incompetence in Baghdad that has brought about these developments. The US did not “fail” — it left Iraq as a democracy, but is not responsible for what the leaders do once they take it over for themselves.

The US has no strategic interest in this outcome. No matter which side wins, the only strategic interest there is oil, and either side will eventually sell oil once the conflict subsides with a victory of one party or the other, or a stalemate. The best option is to sit back and watch the show, and then be ready to sign new or renewed oil contracts once the dust settles. The idea of the U.S. supporting either Iran or Al Quaida is beyond contemptuous.

Posted by WestFlorida | Report as abusive

Of course, the smart play would be to pack up and leave just like the Russians did in Afghanistan in 1989. We had no business invading Iraq or Afghanistan. All we have done is brought death and misery to both countries. This is a civil war between Shia and Sunni. Let them have their fun.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive

it would be easy to threaten air strikes on open territory on road to Baghdad at least our own weaponry would not be part of the attack on that city,
that is a minimum- the threat alone may slow ISIS progress to the capital. Running is also not an option. It diminishes our success when a band of over 1,000 can dismantle a 800,000 army that we trained and created.
we have a lot at stake here. Its very frustrating the threat the people of Baghdad. Sure Malaki is an ass but we share the blame as we selected him when others who would cross ethnic lines were available. The inexperience of Obama’s State department is very obvious the problem with promoting for reasons other than merit are showing

Posted by ThomasOne | Report as abusive

it would be easy to threaten air strikes on open territory on road to Baghdad at least our own weaponry would not be part of the attack on that city,
that is a minimum- the threat alone may slow ISIS progress to the capital. Running is also not an option. It diminishes our success when a band of over 1,000 can dismantle a 800,000 army that we trained and created.
we have a lot at stake here. Its very frustrating the threat the people of Baghdad. Sure Malaki is an ass but we share the blame as we selected him when others who would cross ethnic lines were available. The inexperience of Obama’s State department is very obvious the problem with promoting for reasons other than merit are showing

Posted by ThomasOne | Report as abusive

There were always three countries–Kurdistan, Shiastan, and Sunnistan–in the artificial colonial creation that was Iraq. Some American policy makers understood this during and after the U.S. intervention. But they lost the argument to the “nation builders.” And the American taxpayer lost out as well after all those billions were poured into the rathole.
But the most heart-breaking loss was by American families who lost their husbands/wifes/daughters/sons in this foolish exercise. And the fault sits completely on the shoulders of the Republicans, who completely controlled the agenda during this period.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

It is disappointing to read this opinion. Either the writer has no knowledge about the politics in Iraq or he intentionally misleads the public. He claims that Maliki is a sectarian politician. But he did not report that Maliki was handpicked by our Embassy in Baghdad. He was selected by our Ambassador Khalilzad because Maliki was and is willing to compromise on Iraqi interest and usually subordinates them to that of the U.S.
Second he indicated that Sunnis are marginally in the government. The President is Sunni and one of his vice presidents is Sunni. Two of the three deputies for the prime ministers are Sunnis. Foreign minister is Sunni and the defense minister (vacant) is Sunni [ the acting is Sunni]. About half members of the Iraqi Cabinet are Sunni.
The mess was created in Iraq for two primary reasons: Paul Wolfowitz insisted that the Iraqi constitution must be designed so to ensure the fragmentation of the country. The framers of the constitutions were three American neoconservatives led by Noah Feldman.
Second, our Embassy in Baghdad has dominated the political scene and usually approves who is going to be in the cabinet. In addition to these two reasons, the White House refuses to provide Iraq with fighter jets and objected to have Iraq buying fighter jets from Russia.

Posted by JohnGlobe | Report as abusive

The previous letters are all excellent.
One more point. Like him or not, Saddam had everything under control. Then Bush came along and buggered up the entire country, costing the US billions dollars.
Now we are going back to help fix the current problem.
Let’s have a necktie party for Georgie.

Posted by p19 | Report as abusive

Was Iraq ever anything but a fiction created by people who knew nothing of the country.

What we now know is-

These people hate each other, and want to kill thier rivals.

Next, they hate us- western society, and primarily Americans. So why do we keep beating our heads against that wall?

Finally, why do we keep electing people who want to kill our children over there, while they play silly nation building games on people who do not see themselves as a nation?

Posted by DaveinKL | Report as abusive

The fundamental issue here (and in Ukraine and Syria) is the loyalty of the common citizens and their right to self-determination. It is completely wasteful to think there is a military solution to the situation at hand. If people of one region are so much at odds with people of the rest of the country that they wish to secede, then let them go, subject to agreements on borders, resettlement, resource exchanges. For certain, Balkanization beats civil war.

The US policy ought to be to support whatever the common citizens want. Opposing the Sunni side because there is a chance they may establish a base for a new al-Qaeda, or because al-Maliki is the US’s hand-picked ally, is not enough reason to warrant direct intervention. Military intervention to force people to do what the State Dept thinks is in their best interests, would be like trying to push a river up a hill. Might work for a little while, but not in the long run.

Posted by mind_emergent | Report as abusive

njglea…we have a force to combat these people. It’s called “Drones””. And it’s been extremely effective.

Posted by xyz2055 | Report as abusive

@calfri – You are absolutely correct. The pull out of US troops caused by the dems from Vietnam caused the deaths of over 3 million people. That’s some news you won’t hear on MSNBC or CNN. The cut and run habit of the dems continues unabated. These bastardss continue blaming everyone except themselves after they cut and run and the results are a disaster.

Posted by jorge62 | Report as abusive

What is outrageous in such articles is arrogance with which the numbers of victims are provided: “after nearly 4,500 Americans were killed, 32,000 wounded”. No, absolutely NO mention of Iraqi victims – they are treated as meanignless “collateral damage”. Hundred of thousands killed Iraqis were offered better option than living under the Saddam regime?

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

Well written in understanding the lack of options at this point. The military is for military problem solving. Internal politics is not military at any level.

The US attempted to reach a status of forces agreement to leave troops in Iraq. We were told “NO” and to leave and we did. Thankfully, we got out after being party to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives of Iraqi citizens.

Iraq and its current “leader” are enjoying the logical consequences of their own narrow focused greed and open contempt for their countrymen. The groups of people a government disenfranchises often rise up against that government as is occurring presently. ISIL are not Al Quaida at all. These are the Sunni population who once ruled Iraq. Saddam kept the lid on Pandoras box that is Iraq, with groups that historically distrusted each other.

The blind aggression that was W. Bush tore the lid off with no understanding of the culture or history of the middle east arab world. Water seeks its own level. So do peoples in the pursuit of historical patterns. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni dictatorship and extremely wealthy. You can be sure they are funding this ISIL venture in Iraq. They are now the #1 sponsor of Egypt as it returns to ruthless military dictatorship after a coup that overthrew the elected government.

Until Sunni and Shi’ite learn how to coexist there is no military place for the US in Iraq or Syria or the middle east. The one place we do belong is to force Isreal to return to its borders and stop occupation and theft of its neighboring county’s land and resources. This we can do by simply withholding military aid, parts, weapons systems and political cover.

Posted by Flyboy1266 | Report as abusive

Actually it was mostly Chinese money, you can’t do things halfway look at Germany after WW2, and they were a christian nation, you need to take total control of the school’s teach the children tolerance , outlaw hatespeech, identify everbody, make sure there employed
and jail a crapload of people and come down like the hand of god. It’s like a 40 year deal atleast.

Posted by Dave1968 | Report as abusive

Iraq was a failure before the start.

It was recognized that not only was it sectarian, but tribal too.

“Who are these Arabs?”

DH Lawrence

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Mr.Schneider, you are wrong about one thing. The Sunni’s are supported by Saudi Arabia, the financial center of worldwide Sunni terrorism. All the terrorist acts of the world, aside from Isreal, are perpetrated by the Sunni’s.

Look up all of the terrorist attacks of the past 20 years. ALL DONE BY SUNNI’s. NOT SHIITES.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

For all you cons blaming President Obama for pulling out of Iraq, here is the fact:

‘All American military forces were mandated to withdraw from Iraqi territory by 31 December 2011 under the terms of a bilateral agreement signed in 2008 by Ambassador Ryan Crocker.’

yeah, in 2008 the bush/GOP were in charge. Blame them.

Posted by SunnyDaySam | Report as abusive

will america is going to interfere in current situation in Iraq?

Posted by svm | Report as abusive

Regrettably, this analysis is shallow.

As others have pointed out, Bush II destabilized a country that had been jammed together from portions of the Ottoman Empire and held together by cruel force. Once Bush, Bremmer, and Maliki had made their contributions to the disarray, the world was left with a failed state. But it is unfair of Professor Schneider to blame Maliki. Bush was told by his own advisers that Maliki was not adequate to handle the job, but Bush wouldn’t listen.

Bush et al. have failed to link up with a leader of all the people of Iraq. It should be no surprise that nobody of the caliber of Nelson Mandela would have been able to develop in the tyrannical state led by Saddam Hussein. But there is no way to get truly adequate governance and also democratic controls adequate the guide the various levels of that government absent a leader who is capable of gaining the allegiance of all interest groups in the society (which means that this leader cannot be perceived as the creature of one or another of the interest groups, so a Christian or a Druze might have been better able to do it other things being equal). That leader must be the George Washington, the Nelson Mandela, the Winston Churchill, the Duke of Zhou of his own nation. If the U.S. had been able to see beyond the next election cycle, it (and other Western nations) would have been trying to nurture cadres of future leaders in all failing and fallen areas of the world at least from the time of the fall of the USSR. We cannot get anywhere in Syria, in Iraq, or wherever if we have nobody on the inside to work with.

It is not at all clear that the people of the United States form a clot of opposition to getting involved with the welfare of the Iraqi people and going beyond the purely “military victories.” Hillary Clinton was naturally opposed to “fighting for a dysfunctional, unrepresentative, authoritarian government,” but the context of that statement was an appeal from al-Maliki to save his bacon militarily. She said (in the article linked to by OP): “current problems in Iraq, where Islamic militants have taken over parts of the country and are threatening to further destabilize the Middle East, stem from al-Maliki refusing to create an ‘inclusive’ government at the outset,” which is to ask for “nation building” on the part of the Iraqi’s themselves. Surely nothing she said would preclude our doing anything that we can providing that it does not weaken the basic requirement that whatever Iraqi government is in power should take care of business. Moreover, what she was primarily arguing against was further military involvement without getting state-building going in the right direction.

Strangely, after all of this casting of blame in pursuit of a U.S. posture of detachment or aloofness, Professor Schneider says, “We will almost certainly be forced to intervene in Iraq.” But he doesn’t think air strikes can get the job done. He points to people like Senator McCain getting ready to say that Obama lost Iraq. Then Professor Schneider blames Maliki. He concludes that, “We are no good at all at exporting democratic politics.” So what are we supposed to do? Go back and have another troop surge, and then repeat the whole sorry mess that follows from not doing nation building?

Not only is Professor Schneider’s analysis shallow, it winds around casting blame here and there, and then leaves us with no positive prescription for future action. What are we supposed to do? Sit on our tail and howl while the mess we have ourselves made of Iraq winds down to a final pit of utter human degradation and destruction?

Posted by pe0m | Report as abusive