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The U.S. and Iraq

Marc Lynch provides [1] some sober analysis of recent events in Iraq:

The absence of U.S. troops because of the 2011 withdrawal is an extremely minor part of the story at best. The intense interaction between the Syrian and Iraqi insurgencies is certainly an important accelerant, but again is only part of the story. Nor is the U.S. reluctance to provide more arms to “moderate” Syrian rebels really the key to the growth of ISIS in Syria or in Iraq. It’s a bit hard to believe that the jihadists who have joined up with ISIS would have been deterred by the presence of U.S.-backed forces – “Well, we were going to wage jihad to establish an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but the U.S. is arming moderates so I guess we’ll stay home.” In reality, the shift to an externally fueled insurgency and the flow of money and weapons to a variety of armed groups is what created the conditions that allowed ISIS to thrive in the first place.

Many of the most common reactions to the recent gains made by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been badly mistaken. Complaints that the U.S. “failed” to retain a residual force in Iraq conveniently ignore that the Iraqi government and people were against allowing this, so that was never a realistic option. They also overlook that a continued U.S. military presence would likely not have been able to prevent ISIS’ recent territorial gains, but would almost certainly have provoked a new insurgency that targeted American soldiers. It is extremely doubtful that a small U.S. force would have given Washington any meaningful leverage to force Maliki to change the way that he governs. Maliki was already governing in a sectarian and semi-authoritarian manner when the U.S. had a major military presence in the country, so it seems clear that retaining a smaller presence would have had no effect on him and his allies. It is even more doubtful that the U.S. would use this leverage if it had it.

This is the trouble with trying to condition [2] future aid on improvements in Maliki’s behavior: when push comes to shove, the U.S. usually refuses to cut off aid because it doesn’t want to “abandon” its client. We trick ourselves into thinking that propping up the client is extremely important to us, which is somehow supposed to justify his abuses and our endless enabling of them. The client knows this and continues to behave however he pleases. Lynch points out that Maliki will probably agree to all sorts of concessions now in order to acquire the aid he seeks, but will forget all about this once the immediate crisis is over:

It will be virtually impossible to force any meaningful political moves in the midst of an urgent crisis, and any promises made now will quickly be forgotten once the crisis has passed.

The Iraqi military has failed to resist ISIS because so many of the soldiers in it have no desire to fight for Maliki’s government, and that is at least partly a product of the abusive nature of his rule. The U.S. wasn’t able to change any of that when our forces were occupying the country, and it won’t be able to change it now. Sending more military equipment to a government that evidently cannot keep the equipment it already has from falling into the hands of its enemies is folly. That incidentally reminds us that sending arms to one approved group in a war zone doesn’t guarantee that those weapons won’t fall into the wrong hands. Sending more weapons into Syria could end up unwittingly aiding ISIS or similar groups. If the Iraqi army can’t keep control of the equipment and weapons the U.S. provided, why would we want to risk the same outcome with the “moderate” rebels in Syria?

Intervening militarily to prevent further advances by ISIS would commit the U.S. to acting as Maliki’s protector indefinitely, and the more resources that the U.S. commits to this the harder it will be to pull the plug at some point in the future. It would also put us in the extremely awkward and politically untenable position of fighting on the same side as the Iranian forces that have already been deployed [3] to aid Maliki. Having spent years decrying the expansion of Iranian influence in the region (which was aided by the original invasion and overthrow of Hussein), why would interventionists think that we ought to start fighting on the Iranians’ side in Iraq?

It’s true that the U.S. is responsible for wrecking Iraq, and without the invasion and occupation none of this would now be happening. However, it should also be obvious that the U.S. cannot “fix” or even significantly ameliorate the political problems in Iraq through military aid or the use of force. It is imperative that we remember that when we hear the inevitable demands for “action.”

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26 Comments To "The U.S. and Iraq"

#1 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On June 12, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

If we bomb and it doesn’t work, pressure to send in our exhausted Army will grow.

In fact, our interests may coincide with Iran’s and Assad’s, pace Netanyahu.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 12, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

” Complaints that the U.S. “failed” to retain a residual force in Iraq conveniently ignore that the Iraqi government and people were against allowing this, so that was never a realistic option.”

I don’t have any issues with acknowledging that the Iraqis requested our departure as our presence was problematic. And that is why invasion in some manner of regime change was unfruitful. Unless you subdue the entire country the results are what we now see.

I am not on board the easy out, “They requested our departure.” It was pretty obvious what the results would be. And I say that knowing the it very hard determine outcomes of invasions and departures. But in Iraq, the civil war started as soon as we arrived. I remembering the stories from Marines rolling up on the Baghdad Airport. As Marines watched trace rounds of intense fighting, it became clear that the MArines were not the target. The battle raging in front of them was between Iraqis. Upon requesting whether they should move on both groups to stop the fighting, they were instructed that it was not their fight.

I understand the earnest desire to eschew accountability, but in this case, I don’t think there is any. To include our oversight, guidance and participation, along with the international community of the show trials that commenced, in which we handed over Iraqi leaders into the hands of their enemies for a ‘fair trial.’

The depth of fault is long and deep.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 12, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

“The Iraqi military has failed to resist ISIS because so many of the soldiers in it have no desire to fight for Maliki’s government, and that is at least partly a product of the abusive nature of his rule. ”

Most likely it has more to do with all of the trained military under the previous government are those in the ISIS and partner forces.

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 12, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

Hey! We can make common cause with Iran, which is more democratic than the failed states our elites created. Solved, the Iran impasse. Maybe the only silver lining in war clouds isn’t just for the military-industrial-financialist elites, after all!

#5 Comment By Phil On June 12, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

If Saddam were still alive we’d be begging him to return to power…

#6 Comment By Field Marshal Ky On June 12, 2014 @ 5:57 pm

The Germans have told their people to leave.

We should do the same, and maybe buy Maliki and his 400 closest friends tickets to Qatar or KL.

#7 Comment By Warren Bajan On June 12, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

I fear the U.S. will do something stupid in Iraq, again. Historical amnesia happens practically overnight, now.

#8 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 12, 2014 @ 6:16 pm

Funny how the same folks crying about the apparent collapse of the Iraqi regime were, just yesterday, saying that it was too beholden to Iran.

We don’t want the Sh’ia in power, because they are too close to Iran.

We don’t want these “ISIS” chaps in power either, because they are Islamic Sunni jihadists.

It seems to me, IIRC, that, not so long ago, a third group, that was neither too close to Iran (they started a war with it, actually) and that was not particularly beholden to Islamists (of any variety) was in power in Iraq. Not only was it in power, but it had been so for decades, and it kept a lid on sectarian tensions, and not only resisted radical Islam, but ruled on the basis of a secular, nationalistic, somewhat modern ideology, and promoted an Arab Iraqi identity that transcended Sunni/Sh’ia divisions. Women were architects and pharmacists under this regime. Women could walk the streets and attend school and go to and from work without fear of being attacked by religious misogynist goons. Some of the best secular schools, including universities, in the Arab world flourished under this regime. Illiteracy had been wiped out. Even the tiny Christian minority, while by no means flourishing, was tolerated by this regime. Sunnis and Sh’ia lived, if not in total harmony, at least without killing each other on the streets of Baghdad.

I wondered whatever happened to that regime?

#9 Comment By Sheldon On June 12, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

I’m giving odds the US will start launching some form of air strikes. What will tip the balance in that direction is that Republicans and even some military officers will argue that the failure to do so will in effect make all the previous American deaths there meaningless. I don’t think Obama can withstand pressure of that kind. I hope I am wrong.

As an aside, it is sickening to watch the Senator of Snarl, John McCain, suggest that Obama’s entire security team resign. This from a man who should fire himself for his eager support for this catastrophic war in the first place.

#10 Comment By Winston On June 12, 2014 @ 6:36 pm

ISIS grew because of Syria, plane and simple.
Lynch is right on pooint when he says:
“In reality, the shift to an externally fueled insurgency and the flow of money and weapons to a variety of armed groups is what created the conditions that allowed ISIS to thrive in the first place.” Please tell me why drones for Yemen are okay;but not for Iraq?

Meanwhile there are oil company interests at stake. But maybe they don’t care, maybe they just want high oil prices which instability brings?

All the more reason for people to get off oil. OOPS that is Catch-22!

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 12, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

” were architects and pharmacists under this regime. Women could walk the streets and attend school and go to and from work without fear of being attacked by religious misogynist goons. Some of the best secular schools, including universities, in the Arab world flourished under this regime. Illiteracy had been wiped out. Even the tiny Christian minority, while by no means flourishing, was tolerated by this regime. Sunnis and Sh’ia lived, if not in total harmony, at least without killing each other on the streets of Baghdad.”

Ohh goodness, ohh goodness . . . Hmmmm . . .

We actually agree on some policy matter — well at least what was.

#12 Comment By Winston On June 12, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

Why is Maliki’s sectarianism bad and not Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s? he has more cause as he’s been faced with suicide bombings galore.

#13 Comment By SDS On June 12, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

froma few moments ago-

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Associated Press

Less than three years after pulling American forces out of Iraq, President Barack Obama is weighing a range of short-term military options, including airstrikes, to quell an al-Qaida inspired insurgency that has captured two Iraqi cities and threatened to press toward Baghdad.

“We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold,” Obama said Thursday in the Oval Office.

However, officials firmly ruled out putting American troops back on the ground in Iraq, which has faced resurgent violence since the U.S. military withdrew in late 2011. A sharp burst of violence this week led to the evacuation Thursday of Americans from a major air base in northern Iraq where the U.S. had been training security forces…

When the airstrikes fail to end it; the next step will be obvious and inevitable….

–Here it goes again…..

#14 Comment By Duncan On June 12, 2014 @ 7:06 pm

That incidentally reminds us that sending arms to one approved group in a war zone doesn’t guarantee that those weapons won’t fall into the wrong hands.

Yes. I seem to recall that this happened in Vietnam, too: the NLF had a lot of US-made weapons, captured or bought or simply gifted from the South Vietnamese army.

#15 Comment By Seth Owen On June 12, 2014 @ 7:12 pm

Bahrain’s and Saudi Arabia’s sectarianism is also bad. In the case of Bahrain it has already provoked some unrest. The Saudis are more homogeneous as far as sect goes and are an openly theocratic regime in any case.

Maliki’s sectarianism was unwise because Iraq’s sectarian divisions are more complex.

It is now far too late to salvage anything trhough compromise or wisdom. The final act of the civil war will now play out. Perhaps it will result in partition. Otherwise it will certainly result in a very ruthless authoritarian regime — because that will be the only kind that can hold power.

#16 Comment By AnotherBeliever On June 12, 2014 @ 7:49 pm

Winston, it’s bad because it’s counterproductive. Given the history and military experience (regular and irregular) of the Sunni tribes, and the fact that they control half the populated territory’s people, refusing to share power with them is asking for trouble. An insurgency, at least, and it may devolve into armed insurrection and/or a coup in the short term. Regardless, if Maliki will not work with the Sunnis, then half his population will be unwilling to man the barricades against ISIS. This has become self-evident. All the weaponry in the world won’t help if you can’t command the men behind them.

Philadelphia, the ancient regime might have passed in the Arab spring, or overthrown in a normal coup, or assassinated by regional powers. We’ll just never know.

However, it seems that the Hawks have it backward. If you want to crush ISIS, then support the Maliki and Assad regimes, and Iranian backed militias. And let them crush ISIS in a vice. If Saudi et al won’t play along, then reduce Gulf oil imports markedly, while lifting Iran sanctions.

However, this would not address the underlying grievances of the Sunnis, which are fuel for the fire, and so would not work long term unless both regimes threw out a serious olive branch and successfully co-opted them, thus cutting out the tacit support for ISIS. I don’t know how to convince them to do so. And Maliki may yet turn as cruel to his civilians as Assad, though his hold on power is shakier.

Air strikes are not unlikely, and if not for the danger of entanglement and adding fuel to the Sunni fire, are almost defensible merely on the grounds that we broke Iraq’s air power in the first place. However, see above.

#17 Comment By SFBay On June 12, 2014 @ 8:09 pm

“It is now far too late to salvage anything trhough compromise or wisdom. The final act of the civil war will now play out. Perhaps it will result in partition. Otherwise it will certainly result in a very ruthless authoritarian regime — because that will be the only kind that can hold power.”

So Iraq is going to end up with Saddam Hussein part 2. How perfect. We could have saved thousands of American and tens of thousands of Iraq’s lives and left the first one in there.

#18 Comment By philadlephialawyer On June 12, 2014 @ 8:48 pm

Another Believer:

“Philadelphia, the ancient regime might have passed in the Arab spring, or overthrown in a normal coup, or assassinated by regional powers. We’ll just never know.”

Sure, but then the resulting regime would have been different too. An “Arab spring” type regime might have had actual, democratic legitimacy. A coup might have just exchanged one Baathist for another. As might have an assassination of Saddam. An elected, “Arab Spring” government would not at all be the same thing as Maliki, who was more or less put in power by the USA, and thus will forever lack legitimacy. An Arab Spring government might not have been so sectarian as well. And any continuation of the Baathist regime might have continued the policies I mentioned.

Your point, I take it is that, regimes change over time, and not always for the good. Sure, but in this case, we removed a more or less adequate, functioning government, and replaced it with a Gerry-rigged, one legged stool,ramshackle weaky, which has to lean on somebody (us, Iran) to stay in power. And that means that even worse folks, like ISIS, can possibly take over.

Or, as we see in some of the comments, the drumbeat first for US air strikes and then US troops will start all over again. Indeed, it already has, as, weeks ago, I was already hearing non sense about the “betrayal” of the US forces that fought in Faluja, which had just fallen to Sunni insurgents.

If change in Iraq had come some other way, at least it would not have been our fault or responsibility. But, as it is…..

Or, as the New York World put it, in response to Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” and seemingly endless war in the Philippines:

“We’ve taken up the white man’s burden
Of ebony and brown;
Now will you tell us, Rudyard
How we may put it down?”

We broke Iraq, and so we bought it. Now, it seems, we can’t get shuck of it. We have to “defend” Falujah, forever, or “the troops” will have sacrificed in vain.

#19 Comment By Teach a Fish On June 12, 2014 @ 9:26 pm

“We (America) can & we should help others to help themselves, but the fate of responsible men & women everywhere, and the final decision, rest in their own hands and not in our’s”.

– Gerald Ford, Tulane University, 1975

[4]

#20 Comment By Bob_the_other On June 12, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

I think the best, and perhaps the only workable, solution for Iraq would be to simply lift sanctions on Iran (something which should be done because it is the right thing to do anyway), and let the Iranians deal with it.

#21 Comment By SFBay On June 12, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

Yes, we broke Iraq and thousands have died and suffered. Going back in and leaving again will leave an Iraq just as broke. Better to acknowledge it now and stop doing this again.

Iraq did not come together as a country naturally. The different religious factions hate each other and always will. It’s going to partition itself as this is a civil war that won’t hold the country together.

As for the great middle east, we’ve opened that powder keg. Not going to be a place we want to be for a long long time.

#22 Comment By Kargo Kult On June 12, 2014 @ 10:52 pm

What we’re seeing are the growing pains of three-plus new countries. We’ve screwed things up and put off the inevitable long enough. Get out of there and stay out.

#23 Comment By jk On June 13, 2014 @ 4:36 am

Nothing like a boneheaded US invasion to unite Mulsim hatred of the US again.

That will stop all sectarian violence for a short period of time, or at least until the dollar collapses or US citizens riot in the streets.

#24 Comment By A_Dumas On June 13, 2014 @ 9:16 am

The worst move we ever made was the invasion of Iraq, a close second was of course our entry into Afghanistan. The US will feel repercussions from this for decades, perhaps forever. All we did was stir up an anthill, and the pesky little buggers will be biting us until they are no more. Not that it really matters; America is doing a find job of destroying itself. The real question is who will destroy America first – us or them.

#25 Comment By cdugga On June 13, 2014 @ 11:55 am

Flow of money and arms? Supplied by who? Not us, should be the US default response. Even if we decided to sell the saudi’s more weapons and sell the iranians weapons(labeled made in China?) we should never have the US taxpayer pay for them. If the merchants of death make money by inciting violence and selling the weapons used in civil wars, the US taxpayer should not be who funds those wars and US representatives should not be riding that wave of fear, weapons sales and psuedo god given right to buy and trade AR’s. Virginia is changing from dependence on the MIC to dependence on spreading fear and weaponry in the US and civil war abroad. God wants us to defend ourselves against those hordes of brown immigrants and urban blacks with multi-round clips? When I see civil war I see weapons sales. When I see weapons sales, I see the enlargement of small differences into a violent foundation for civil war and everlasting feud. Again and again the republican sponsor’s mantra of free unregistered and freely traded AR’s given over to a fantasy individual responsibility is proven wrong. It is the gun, not the person. One of the easiest things in the world to do is incite fear and violence towards those others, but as long as they are swinging machete’s with the occasional rifle, it is of little or no concern to the international community and the global economics of the oil money standard. Throw in modern arms and the islamic quarrel over who gets the women to subjugate how, which americans should not care anything about, turns into a major conflict with global repercussions. Somebody makes money off that. Or tries to pay debt down with it? The world looks at who suffers from it. Maybe it is time americans learn where those arms are coming from since those are the merchants interested in sparking conflict and keeping hate and fear alive. My hope is the same as the other comments. That is, our president does not get goaded into direct american military intervention by the insipid political commentary of Boner and Palin’s daddy.

#26 Comment By James Canning On June 13, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

If Iran is able to assist the Iraqi central government and prevent its overthrow of ISIS, this surely would be a good thing.