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Who Lost Iraq?

Aaron David Miller image

"We didn't sign up for nation-building, kept denying that's what we wanted to do, and in the end stopped trying," writes Aaron David Miller.

Americans love keeping score. We love lists, ranking presidents, and Top 10s in just about every category. And we particularly love trying to figure out who won and lost things.

In foreign policy, this has devolved into by now the well-established "Who Lost What" game. And we've played it now for over half a century. Take your pick: who lost China, Vietnam, Egypt, Ukraine, Syria, the war on terror, and now Iraq. Part of this process, of course, is that we love beating up whomever we peg responsible for putting up an L rather than a W -- Democrats, Republicans, even ourselves.

Why ourselves? Because at the heart of the Who Lost What game is the elusive notion that these prizes were ours to "win" in the first place. That's not to say what America does (or doesn't do) is irrelevant to determining how we fare in the world, or that we haven't made mistakes that have made matters worse.

But when it comes to influencing countries, small tribes or big powers, it's always a matter of degree. And this is most certainly the case when we're trying to reconstruct a country, build a nation, or assume responsibility for ending sectarian, religious, and ethnic tensions in societies that lack enlightened leadership and legitimate institutions -- especially when we don't have the power, capacity, and partners to do it. And yet, faced with these challenges, we all too often assume a power and capacity -- driven usually by arrogance and ignorance -- that somehow we can bend the world or the forces of history to our will. This isn't a defense of the Obama administration's risk-aversion as much as it is a defense of common sense and reality.

That said, the who lost -- or perhaps more precisely the who's losing -- Iraq debate is no academic matter.

The president may be getting ready to blow a whole lot of stuff up on the ground in that country. And he's being encouraged by a lot of people who are trying to guilt him into doing so to compensate, presumably, for what we failed to do before. But while Obama's besieged with calls for airstrikes and T-LAMs to break the back of the ISIS siege, he should remind himself of two things. He didn't lose Iraq because it has never been ours to win. And he can't win it now. Here's why.

Iraq Was Unwinnable

The Bush 43 vision for the country -- free, secure, violence-free, and stable with Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis all getting along in a contentious yet real democracy -- was always a fantasy. It denied what Iraq was and where it was. We can heap as much blame on the Obama administration as we want. And they may well deserve a fair share of it for not trying hard enough to secure an agreement that would have allowed a residual U.S. presence and which might have helped stabilize things. But it doesn't change the reality that demography and geography made almost impossible the prospects of an Iraq made in America and fashioned with a Hollywood happy ending.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a profound blunder that would set into motion a series of events that contained much of the dysfunction that we see in Iraq today, including the unintended rise of al Qaeda in Iraq. When you invade a country in the heart of Arabdom with insufficient forces, unclear objectives, and a woeful misunderstanding of that nation's politics, you aren't off to a good start.

The Iraq invasion destroyed the country's institutions; triggered a major shift in the balance of power in favor of the Shiites; alienated the Sunnis and made them vulnerable to jihadi persuasions (even with the success of the 2007 surge); and enhanced Iran's role and influence. It also left a ton of unfinished business that the United States tried its best to take care over the next eight years.

But so much of that -- creating a legitimate and sustainable contract between the governed and those who govern; countering Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian agenda; finding an equitable share for the Sunnis; getting a newly self-confident and liberated Kurdish community integrated in the new Iraq; and checking Iran's influence -- was simply beyond America's capacity.

We didn't sign up for nation-building, kept denying that's what we wanted to do, and in the end stopped trying. And it was easy to see why.

Iraq in 2003, 2011, and today is a bridge too far. It was never going to be post-1945 Europe or Japan. It wasn't even the Balkans. Consider the fact that we occupied Japan between 1945 and 1952 -- a militaristic nation, some of whose soldiers refused to surrender until the 1970s -- and not a single American was killed in a hostile action by Japanese during that entire period. In Iraq, we had no entrance strategy and no exit strategy either. The foundation was rotten before we arrived. And despite a good faith effort, the U.S. reconstruction job left a foundation somewhat improved but still fundamentally unsound. 

Blame Maliki first

America's trillion-dollar social science experiment -- to build a new Iraqi state on the ruins of the old one -- failed only partly because of what we did or didn't do. The main problem was the playing field itself: Iraq. The most central actor in the current mess isn't Barack Obama or even George W. Bush, but Nouri al-Maliki, a diehard Shiite triumphalist whose vision of the new Iraq had little to do with a more broadminded future and everything to do with taking care of business related to the past -- settling scores and gaining power. And that meant pursuing a sectarian agenda at the expense of what we might have considered a national one. The United States may have helped moderate Maliki's worst impulses while troops were there in force, but how long were we reasonably expected to stay in order to continue to baby sit him -- five, 10 years?

Leaders are driven by who they are and where they are. And Maliki is a Shiite looking to right old wrongs. But now, extremist Sunni groups are determined to right Maliki's new wrongs. Meanwhile, the Kurds understandably are determined to ensure their interests are protected even at the expense of the Iraqi state. And all of them operate in a neighborhood where Iran -- whose interests in Iraq are not ours over the long-term -- plays a critical role. These forces of geography, history, and sectarian identity were always going to be more powerful and enduring than American civic lessons or financial and political support.

Syria: America's fault too?

If only Obama acted in 2011 to arm the moderate opposition and in 2012 to enforce his redline on chemical weapons, everything would have been different. The jihadists would have been contained, ISIS relegated to the margins, and maybe even Assad would have been shot crawling out of a drainage pipe (or at minimum, fled the country, or cried "uncle"). What's happening in Syria and now Iraq is a direct result of President Obama's refusal and failure to act in a timely and effective manner and his abdication of moral and humanitarian responsibility to boot.

If only Cleopatra's nose would have been shorter, Pascal famously argued in his Pensées, the world would have been a different place. Maybe. I get the criticism. But the upbeat notions of how the United States might have influenced the situation in Syria sound pretty similar to those that still linger Iraq, don't they?

There are no rewind buttons on history, no way to disprove counterfactuals and speculation about alternative realities. But it's a real stretch to imagine that anything this risk-adverse administration would have been prepared to do in 2011 or 2012 would have fundamentally changed the arc of either conflict. Indeed, to do that, the Obama administration would have had to become, well... the un-Obama administration, committing to a serious military and political strategy that would have been sustained for months, even years, though probably not including boots on the ground. I'm not sure any administration -- a Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton presidency -- in the wake of years of effort in Afghanistan and Iraq would have been willing to do that either. And let's not forget that this is something that Congress would have been unwilling to endorse.

Of course, nature then took its course: first, the Syrian civil war became a natural breeding ground for ISIS; second, Iraq was a ripe host for the spread of the contagion across the border. Brookings's Bruce Riedel, no sentimentalist on these matters, recently argued that the Bush surge could not have destroyed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's empire; nor would have a U.S. residual force. "Only sustained good and smart governance could kill it, and that was something post-Saddam Hussein Iraq could not produce, with or without the United States," writes Riedel.

Obama didn't create the environment for ISIS's recent rampages in Iraq, the Iraqis did. That hundreds -- perhaps a few thousand armed men -- could subdue a city of 1.7 million people is a stunning testament to just how empty a shell the Iraqi state really is, to how Maliki coup-proofed the army at the expense of its effectiveness, and to the reality that Sunnis and Kurds weren't going to sacrifice much to keep Maliki's Iraq afloat.

This administration owes the foreign policy piper plenty, for many things. And yes, maybe Obama's rush for the exits in 2011 accelerated the downward arc of events. But the primary responsibility for the current mess lies elsewhere: with a previous administration that badly and tragically overreached in an effort to create a new Iraq; an Iraqi government and sectarian political system far more committed to getting even with other sectarian groups at the expense of the nation state; and neighbors determined to ensure their own interests take precedence over Iraq's.

Do what you can, Mr. President, to break the momentum of the ISIS attacks; press Maliki to be a more inclusive leader; and up the support for Syria's opposition -- as you promised to do. But don't let anyone guilt or shame you into thinking you can save, win, or redeem these sad and forlorn Arab lands. Iraq was always a trap for America. It remains so to this day.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

About the Author

Aaron David Miller image

Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more