Iraq Falls Apart

At this moment, well-armed and well-organized troops of the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have seized Mosul, Tikrit and other parts of central and northern Iraq, and seem to be marching on Baghdad. The Iraqi armed forces seem to be melting away. There is intense neoconservative pressure on President Obama, from Senator John McCain and others, to use force to prevent a radical Islamist seizure of power.

It’s important to take a step back and look at this issue objectively. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 on orders from President George W. Bush. The premises for the invasion were three:

  • First, the dictator Saddam Hussein was alleged to have weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat to Iraq’s neighbors and to US vital interests.

Efforts by Bush to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government elected under our auspices, to allow US combat troops to remain in Iraq, came to nothing, and President Obama pulled the plug after he assumed office.

  • Second, Saddam was alleged to have aided al-Qaeda prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
  • Third, it was argued that a democracy could be built in Iraq with US help, and that it would serve as an inspiration for the spread of democracy and freedom all over the Middle East.

As is well-known, none of these premises proved accurate, but the US remained bogged down in Iraq until 2009 and retains a significant support role there. Efforts by Bush to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government elected under our auspices, to allow US combat troops to remain in Iraq, came to nothing, and President Obama pulled the plug after he assumed office.

While the Hussein regime was based almost exclusively on the Sunni minority, especially in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, the Shi’a majority of southern Iraq has dominated elections and controlled the government after Saddam’s overthrow. The current government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is controlled by Shi’ites and has had tense relations with the Sunnis in central Iraq. Obama has encouraged al-Maliki to reach an accommodation with the Sunnis, but that has not happened.

Looking back even further, Iraq was created as part of the Versailles settlement after World War I. As a territory, it had no connection with the preexisting provinces of the Ottoman Empire. It was an artificial entity created for the convenience of its British administrators. What we are witnessing is the breakdown of that artificial state into its three main constituents: a Shi’a south, a Sunni center, and a Kurd north.

The US was unable, as an occupying force, to create a stable Iraq after overthrowing Saddam. This is not a surprise. Saddam had maintained stability only with an iron fist.

The US was unable, as an occupying force, to create a stable Iraq after overthrowing Saddam. This is not a surprise. Saddam had maintained stability only with an iron fist.

The American people (aside from a few neoconservative hawks) are not prepared for a permanent reoccupation of Iraq, and that is what it would take to stabilize the country. We’ve been there, done that. It didn’t work before, and it wont’t work now. Our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have simply served to reinforce al-Qaeda and other Islamic militants. It’s time for a more nuanced, flexible approach to the Middle East, based on dealing constructively with the major forces there, rather than trying—unsuccessfully—to control them.

john peelerObama, characteristically, is not likely to go all the way towards such an alternative approach, but at least he seems likely to resist the calls for aggressive intervention. We should be grateful to him for that.

John Peeler

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