Note to readers: I wrote these words in November 2008, just after Obama was elected President for the first time. I’ve decided not to edit them. Perhaps they capture the thoughts (however flawed) of one American who was trying to understand the mess we had made of Iraq.
Straight Talk on Iraq: Of Revolutions, Surges, and Victories (2008)
As a retired U.S. military man, I’d like to see “victory” in Iraq, not only for Americans, but also for the oft-neglected and oft-misunderstood Iraqi people. With Saddam deposed and executed and the illusory weapons of mass destruction eliminated from our fevered intelligence guestimates, one could make an argument we’ve already won. But “winning,” of course, was never supposed to be just about eliminating Saddam or WMD; it was about creating democracy, or at least a simulacrum of democracy, in Iraq. We aimed to inspire and sustain an Iraqi government, allied with the United States, which would give a voice to the people instead of terrorizing them into compliance and silence. This new freedom-loving Iraq would then serve as a positive role model to other states in the Middle East. Or so it was pitched in 2003, among those who subscribed to neo-con dreams of the unqualified benevolence and irresistible potency of American power.
Even before the war in Iraq became an occupation that degenerated into an insurgency and civil war among rival factions, even before the Iraqi people paid a terrible price in lives lost and refugees created, our new president-elect expressed his opposition to the war, calling it a mistake and couching his criticism primarily in strategic terms (as a distraction from the real war on terror in Afghanistan, for example). Many people in the U.S. and around the world believed the war was not simply a strategic distraction—one that allowed Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda leaders to escape from a noose tightening around them—but also an immoral one. For them, the war was worse than a mistake. It was a crime.
Those today who view the war as either a mistake, or a crime, or both naturally have little compunction about pulling our troops out immediately, even if it means “losing” the war. But surely our new president-elect got it right when he said repeatedly on the stump, “We need to be as careful getting out [of Iraq] as we were careless getting in.”
The Iraqi Revolution: Made by America
Before we get out, however, we should understand what we did when we went in. Basically, by overthrowing Saddam, disbanding the Iraqi army, and criminalizing the Ba’ath party and thus throwing most of Iraq’s professional bureaucracy out of work, we initiated a revolution in Iraq. And revolutions, as we should know from our own history, are usually bloody, unpredictable, and run to extremes (think Reign of Terror) before they play themselves out (think Thermidorean Reaction), followed often by the emergence of a strong man (think Napoleon or Lenin; the U.S. was very fortunate indeed to produce George Washington).
Moreover, the Iraqi revolution we precipitated and attempted to negotiate was more than political and military: It was social, economic, religious, you name it. Many of the Iraqi professional and educated elite fled the country as it degenerated into violence; a socialist economy, already weakened by more than a decade of sanctions, collapsed under U.S. bombing, Iraqi looting, and widespread corruption; a Shi’a majority, oppressed under Saddam, suddenly found itself able to settle violently its grievances and grudges against a previously overbearing Sunni minority. Post-Saddam Iraq was a world that we turned upside down. And our troops were in the thick of it—no longer victors, increasingly victims, whether of extremist violence or of our own leadership that failed to give them the equipment, both physical and mental, to defend themselves adequately.
Our military has its faults, but offering blunt self-assessments is not one of them. As one Army field-grade officer put it to me recently, “We deployed an Army [in 2004-05 that was] unsympathetic to local Iraqis, sophomoric even at fairly senior levels in their approach to the fight, refusing to admit there was the potential and then the presence of an insurgency.” His assessment squares with one made by a friend of mine assigned to the CPA in Baghdad in 2004 that the U.S. approach was “a train wreck waiting to happen, and the [Bush] administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less do anything about it.”
And the wreck came. An Army battalion commander told me recently of a conversation he had with a former Iraqi insurgent leader about the “hot time” of 2004-05. “Everyone,” this Iraqi leader confessed, “had gone just a little crazy killing members of their own tribes, other sects, in addition to fighting the [Iraqi] government forces and us [the U.S. military].” His is a painful reminder that the Bush Administration started a revolution in Iraq that they chose neither to understand nor adequately control. More than five years later, we are still picking up the pieces.
Of Simplistic Narratives
When Americans bother about Iraq, they rarely think of the violent top-to-bottom revolution that we precipitated. Instead, they usually see it in the simplistic and solipsistic terms of the presidential debates. For John McCain, Iraq was all about staying the course to victory (however defined) and achieving “peace with honor.” Somehow, achieving victory would redeem the sacrifices of American troops (the sacrifices of Iraqis were rarely if ever mentioned).
For Barack Obama, Iraq was all about pulling out (most) troops as expeditiously as possible, following a seemingly prudent timeline of sixteen months. Stressing the generous American taxpayer was contributing $10 billion a month to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, while an untrustworthy and seemingly ungrateful Iraqi government continued to pile up scores of billions in unspent oil-related profits, Obama called for shifting the war’s burden to the Iraqis, both militarily and monetarily.
Thus McCain and Obama, perhaps unwittingly, essentially stressed two different sides of the old Nixonian playbook of 1969: “peace with honor” together with an Iraqi version of Vietnamization completed in lockstep with a U.S. withdrawal. Neither candidate chose to emulate Nixon’s “madman theory”: His idea that the North Vietnamese would negotiate in better faith if he convinced them the president was wildly unpredictable and so fanatically anti-communist that he might do anything, even toss a few nukes. (Interestingly, the candidate who came closest was Hillary Clinton in her promise to “obliterate” Iran if it ever dared to threaten Israel.)
Complicating the simplistic narratives offered in the presidential debates were certain unpleasant facts on the ground, the most recent one being the Iraqis themselves and their growing assertiveness in affirming their autonomy and sovereignty. Their resistance to renewing the status of forces agreement (SOFA) is a clear sign of growing weariness with our military occupation. Other annoying facts include Iranian meddling: Iran’s leaders obviously have little interest in seeing either the U.S. or Iraq succeed, unless the latter is ruled by a Shi’a party closely aligned with them. And let’s not forget other niggling facts and factions, such as the Sunni Awakening and its disputed role in Iraq’s future; the Kurds and their contested desire for more autonomy and control over Iraq’s oil resources; various extremist factions jostling for power, such as the Shi’a JAM (Sadrist militia) and its related criminal elements; and looming humanitarian and logistical problems such as accommodating millions of returning Iraqi refugees, assuming conditions improve to a point where they want to return.
Surging to Victory of a Sort
It’s undeniable that last year’s surge orchestrated by General Petraeus helped to curb violence in Iraq, providing a glimmer of hope that a comparatively bloodless political reconciliation in Iraq might yet be possible. Yet most Americans, conditioned by campaign rhetoric, still remain unaware of the fact that the surge was arguably not the most important factor in the decrease in violence. Petraeus himself has testified that recent gains achieved by Iraqis and American troops are both fragile and reversible. As one U.S. Army battalion commander recently described it to me, Iraq remains “a Rubik’s cube of cross cutting rivalries and vengeances.” As someone who never had much luck solving Rubik’s cube, I wasn’t encouraged by his analogy.
Our military has learned the hard way that Iraq eludes simple solutions. The immense challenge facing us in the immediate future is to build on our limited gains and to make them irreversible. And the first step for Americans in this process is to recognize that “victory” is ultimately in Iraqi hands, not ours. Are we finally ready to admit the limits of our military power—and to share these limitations honestly and forthrightly with the American people? Especially those whose knowledge of the war begins and ends with “Support Our Troops” ribbons?
If, as one U.S. Army commander puts it in plain-speak, a “shit storm” comes to Iraq despite our best efforts to head it off, are we honest enough to admit our culpability and the limits of our own power to remake the world? Or will we once again play the blame game, and ask, “Who lost Iraq?” And if we insist on asking, will we remember to look back to the huge blunders committed in 2003-04 by Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Bremer before rendering a final verdict?
Just before I retired from the Air Force in 2005, I shared a few words of goodbye with an Iraqi-American officer in my unit. After consenting to sharing kisses with him (a sign of affection and honor in Iraqi culture, and the first time I’ve kissed a scraggly cheek since I was a kid), he left me with an optimistic message. I don’t recall his exact words, but the gist of it was that although things in Iraq looked dire, ordinary, decent Iraqis would eventually come to the fore and renew the country of his birth. His guarded optimism reminded me that there is hope for Iraq, and it resides in the Iraqi people themselves. And as we slowly withdraw our combat forces, let us do whatever we can to support and preserve the spirit of peace-loving Iraqis.