Friday, December 23, 2011

Iraq revisited

In 2002, the Bush Administration decided to attack Iraq. No one really knows why, but I suspect that the main reason was that in their foreign policy scheme, no medium-size state with significant regional conventional forces hostile to the United States should be allowed to survive in the post-Cold War world, whether it was building WMD or not. More specifically, they wanted to remove a long-time threat to Israel, and at least some of the leaders of the Bush Administration regarded the attack on Iraq as the prelude to an attack on Iran. (I heard from good sources that both Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton, the undersecretaries of State and Defense, talked freely about this.) President Bush, I think, sincerely thought that we could create a democratic Iraq that would become a model for the region. Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the whole job could be done in a matter of months, without any long-term occupation. It was no accident that the United States embarked upon this new adventure essentially at the moment when Vietnam veterans had become very rare in the senior ranks of the American military.

According to another excellent source, President Bush on the eve of the invasion had no idea of the division of Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. (Bill Kristol famously told Terri Gross that this would not pose a problem because "Iraq has always been pretty secular.") The neoconservatives, in one of the great self-deceptions of modern history, had not only talked themselves into the idea that a pro-American and pro-Israeli regime would automatically emerge when a dictator was toppled, but threw the power of the U.S. government behind anyone who promised to make it happen, like Ahmed Chalabi. As a noted here at the time, the very first election held after the invasion of Iraq exposed the reality of the situation: votes were cast almost entirely along religious lines. Civil war was already breaking out, and it became horribly violent in the middle of the decade, displacing four million mostly Sunni and Christian Iraqis, half of whom fled the country. Meanwhile the Sunnis and extreme Shi'ites mounted an insurgency against the American presence, eventually taking the lives of more than four thousand American soldiers.

By late 2006 the Pentagon was willing to give up, but George W. Bush was not. Showing sensible leadership, he not only insisted upon a new policy but found a man--General David Petraeus--who thought he could carry it out. Petraeus quieted the situation down by making an alliance with Sunni leaders in much of the country against Al Queda, while building up a mostly Shi'ite central government under Nouri Al-Maliki. Kurdistan, meanwhile, flourished under what amounted to independence. Not long before leaving office, the Bush Administration concluded an agreement that kept US troops in Iraq until 2012. The Obama Administration initially reduced our presence to 50,000 men, and then, after failing to extend that agreement further, withdrew them all.

I am not particularly surprised that relations between the Shi'ites and Sunnis are now breaking down, but I am a bit shaken that Maliki could not even allow us a decent interval before issuing an arrest warrant for the leading Sunni politician in the country on very suspect charges of terrorism. That step was immediately answered by an outbreak of bombings in Baghdad. The Kurds may now be forced to choose between the Sunnis and Shi'ites. We have already had trouble between the Kurds and the Turkish government. Meanwhile, the Iranian influence among the Shi'ites has continued to grow.

As it turns out, the destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime was an important straw in the wind. While I do not think it caused the Arab spring, Iraq now looms as the first of a large and growing number of Arab countries--including Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya--whose long-time authoritarian regimes have now fallen. Yet in each case the leading political force isn't western-style democracy, but some more or less moderate form of extremism. The Syrian regime is at least as threatened, and its fall will probably lead to another civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis. We are witnessing the second stage of a process that began around 1990: the collapse of regional orders created after the First World War and the end of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Peter Galbraith pointed out some years ago that three of the four multinational states created in the early 1920s--Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia--had now disappeared. His prediction that Iraq would do the same may yet be vindicated.

In a sense these events are part of an even larger process. From the 17th century until quite recently, western civilization was on the march. The process climaxed after 1945, when two superpowers inspired by western ideas--the United States and the Soviet Union--extended their sway over most of the world, and when there was essentially no alternative to following one or the other of their models of political and economic development. That began to change in 1979, when an Islamist regime replaced an American client in Iran. Now there seems little hope of any Middle Eastern state following a genuinely western model. Western ideas are also under attack in Israel, where theocracy threatens the state on many fronts. And, of course, they are under attack in the United States, where Republicans are trying to dismantle the legacy of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and even, in some key respects, the Enlightenment.

President Obama, whose own life has been a remarkable series of triumphs so far, made one characteristic mistake in connection with the withdrawal from Iraq, claiming that we had helped make it a democracy. So resentful were even our allies there of our presence that they could not wait a week before undermining him. The neoconservatives were already accusing him of losing Iraq by a precipitate withdrawal, ignoring, characteristically, that the government we created had simply refused to allow us to stay. These accusations will continue, but the President will do well to emulate the most underrated President of my lifetime, Gerald R. Ford, who in 1975 simply told the American people that our role in the Vietnamese drama was over as our ally fell apart. We live, as I have said many times here recently, in an era of declining governmental authority, largely because of the retreat of the Enlightenment model of a government designed to ensure its citizens' rights and improve their lot in life. That model may be preserved in certain parts of the world, but its relentless progress during the 19th and 20th centuries has been halted.


Ed said...

This is a very good summary of the Bush administration thinking, such as it was, on Iraq. I will add there there were some other possible motivations. Iraq has some of the largest remaining unexploited oil reserves in the world, and before the invasion it was French companies who had the contracts to do the exploiting. The whole extended war was also a bonanza for American war contractors, while I don't think this was sufficient reason in itself for the invasion it explains why so many DC insiders jumped on the bandwagon.

The Iraq War is unique in a number of ways, but two of them are that we still have no idea for the actual reasons behind the invasion, we can only speculate, and second that the American public gained no discernible benefit from the war. American elites, particularly Washington elites, however made out like bandits with the oil contracts and other war contracts, as well as removing someone who was trying to hard to cut in on their action.

So the war was a throwback in two senses. First it was a colonial adventure similar to several, including several launched by the U.S., in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Second, it was an eighteenth century style cabinet war, a war fought by an aristocracy for its own ends, completely disconnected from the nation at large. They even used mercenaries! I don't think we will see a revival of nineteenth century colonialism, for one thing the share of world population in Europe and North America is considerably smaller now than it was then, and the west no longer has the incredible technological edge they gained in the century after the industrial revolution. But I do think we will bring back eighteenth century style wars as we are bringing back eighteenth century style aristocracy.

tructor man said...

Thanks for this helpful view of the past weeks in Iraq. I do think you minimize the mistakes of the Bush administration.
First mistake: "pausing" the 2001 initiative in Afghanistan, when we were in hot puirsuit of Bin Laden, to await Northern Warlord participation;
Second mistake: Paul Bremmer's disbanding of the defeated Iraqi Army and consequent "de-Bathification" of Iraq's cadre of bureaucrats and officials who were essential to running thngs like energy, sewerage, courts, police, etc. Suddenly without pay or prospects, these outed officials became the leadership of insurgency and fomented chaos and Iranian-led IED bombings.
One should also consider the emotional and immature GW Bush as seeking revenge for Saddam's attempt to assassinate his father GWH Bush.

Finally, the American people were traumatized by 9/11, and without mature leadership, were frightened into an orgy of revenge, thus sanctioning our greatest mistake since Vietnam.

Ray C Neill said...

Thank you for the interesting blog today that really does spark reflective appraisals of the last decades of change in the Middle East and elsewhere. Permit me my observations. Firstly, it is futile to evaluate the results in Iraq in terms of win and lose. The days of clear cut and everlasting outcomes are a remnant of our post WW 2 generation best reserved for a Sunday football game. Success now comes from a battle to a workable compromise. Secondly, the Middle East has been governed by clans for thousands of years and we are naive to think that this will change in the blink of an historical eye. Thirdly, whenever aid or benevolence is given it comes with a price - usually resentment. Assistance only reminds the receiver of his/her inferiority. Fourthly, never underestimate the power of change to bring about revolution. As I write this, Moscowvites are amassing in the streets to protest rigged elections with the formidable aid of the social media connections that I have blogged about in the past. The role of the occident is apparently alive and well. These are truly interesting times.
On a personal note, I send my best wishes for your holidays and the new year - KBO. Ray C Neill

Anonymous said...

My memory of the leadup to the Iraq war is quite different from Dr. Kaiser's and the three comment writers. It seems to me that for months before there were constant articles in news magazines about Saddam Hussein's threatening behavior. He was a boil on the bum of the Middle East and every writer seemed to think somebody should do something about it. Even the New Yorker apologized afterward for encouragiong such an attack. We all just wanted another Gulf War. Quick and cheap.

Anonymous said...

You might just enjoy this.

Publion said...

Concur with the Post and with the Comments.

We are now committed to Go Out And Grab (GOAG) wars to somehow keep a place at the Great Table to compensate for our failures to maintain genuine Productivity (the Knowledge and Service Economy was a domestic dampdream pandering to assorted elite demographics and advocacies); we get to Grab juicy fresh assets, economic and/or strategically sited – this was part of the dampdream in Iraq and more successful in Libya (possessed of large oil reserves, 150 tons of gold in its Central Bank, and a nice site near the developing (or re-developing) resource-rich Eurasian trade routes (impervious to naval interdiction or interference).

All very Great Power and 19th century, except that we are no longer on the upswing as a major Power and the ‘natives’ have – as others here have noted – many of the latest weapons and gadgets (including one rather snazzy one of our own in the form of that super-drone). In this we are joined by other associate-victors of WW2 who have also blown their wad imitating our own economic frakkeries.

We are now approaching the problem faced by early 17th century Spain: having blown her New World wealth and desperately in need of fresh infusions of assets, she had to send out the remaining forces, yet those very military (mis-)adventures ate up most of what the forces managed to Grab.

It is also ominous that the erstwhile ‘liberal’ supporters of the National Nanny State fully support this new ‘humanitarian responsibility’ to ‘intervene’, providing a fine glossy pretext for GOAG. The well-tuned outrage at a putatively Viagra-crazed rapist soldiery deployed by the targeted sovereignty is an excellent example (and, in that scenario, did we originally sell them the Viagra?).

A holiday proposal as we approach New Year: watch the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” again.

Publion said...

Two further suggestions.

On the always-interesting City Journal website, Stefan Kanfer has a meaty retrospective on Walt Kelly, creator of the Pogo comic strip.

I received as a gift a 2-volume edition of Bill Mauldin's Willy and Joe cartoons. It is one of the shames of the era that Mauldin died virtually un-noticed in the early '00s, when his take on combat was ignored from both the Right (too un-jingoistic) and the Left (too masculine).

Bruce Post said...

Re:Jerry Ford --

I agree that he is vastly underrated. Perhaps, David, someday you will do an extensive post on your reasons for your perception.

Obviously, folks focus on the Nixon pardon as a primary reason for Ford's eventual defeat by Jimmy Carter. I agree that it played a significant role, but it was not the only reason.

Here are some issues that I think contributed to Ford's defeat:

-- many people denigrated Ford's intelligence. When the word circulated that Nixon was going to nominate Ford, the dissing of Ford's intellect began. Some defenders of Ford retorted that Ford was a decent individual and such "a nice guy." Hubert Humphrey, for whom I briefly worked, said about Ford's niceness, "So's my Uncle Fred, but I wouldn't want him to be President." Ford was eventually confirmed overwhelmingly.

-- some in the media portrayed Ford as a klutz, generally a totally unfair accusation. Jerry Ford was actually one of our most athletic Presidents, someone who had an exemplary career in college football at Michigan.

-- when the debates with Carter occurred, I can remember watching the foreign policy debate with a then-insider on the NSC staff. Many of the Ford people felt, in advance of that debate, that Ford would clean Carter's clock. Then, when Ford uttered that unfortunate phrase about Poland not being under communist domination, my friend instantly slumped, almost like a deflating balloon.

-- Lastly, I think Reagan's early challenge to Ford in the Republican primary weakened Ford going into the general election.

So, I agree with your conclusion that Gerald Ford is a vastly underrated President of our era. Quite frankly, I also feel that Jimmy Carter, despite some of his shortcomings and mistakes, was better than he is portrayed by many observers today.


David Reynolds said...

Don't miss "We Meant Well" by Peter Van Buren, a Foreign Service Officer who served in one of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq.

Anonymous said...

Petraeus Nearly Quit Over Afghan Drawdown, Book

Anonymous said...

It is not only Republicans who have been undermining the legacy of the Progressive era - the Progressives were for Americanizing the immigrants and integrating them into a unified nation. Is this true of Progressives today? As for the very Enlightenment idea of Reason - am I the only one who has taught at a University in the United States? Need I bring up the Sokol incident as just one reminder. If it only were just the Republicans, there would not be a problem.