Obama’s impossible choices on Iraq

By Bill Schneider
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


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

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