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.