Eleven years ago, the Bush Administration invaded Iraq, full of self-righteousness and high hopes. They did so, we know now, with an extraordinary lack of either organization or forethought. Just a few months before the invasion, according to one reliable source, President Bush did not understand that there was a conflict in Iraq between Sunnis and Shi'ites. His neoconservative cheerleader assured Terri Gross that that would not be a problem: "Iraq has always been pretty secular," he said. Worse, it now seems pretty clear that the Bush Administration never put on paper a clear statement of why we were invading Iraq or what we intended to happen as a result of the invasion. They did what George W. Bush probably did on a number of tests in high school and college--they winged it.
Embarking upon the wrong war, I would suggest, is a bit like getting into a long-term relationship with the wrong person. One can endlessly speculate about how things might have turned out differently, where they went wrong, and whether the other person might change, but in many cases, nothing can make up for that initial fundamental mistake. So it was, in my opinion, in this case. The collapse of the Iraqi Army in the northern part of the country, the fall of Mosul, and the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has led to a flood of recriminations directed against the Obama Administration. If only the President had not cut and run too early, Republicans claim, none of this would have happened. Others ask in amazement how the Iraqi Army upon which we spent so much money and which we supposedly "trained" for so many years could have collapsed so quickly. No one--not even Dexter Filkins, who understands the weaknesses of the Malilki government as well as anyone--seems to be able to face the simple truth: that Americans have no means of making Iraqis become whom they want them to be, tolerant and mutually understanding citizens of an independent nation. He concluded this New Yorker blog saying that the construction of an effective Iraqi government would take a lot of time.
Sunni Muslims had ruled Iraq at least since the British set up the Iraqi Kingdom in the early 1920s. The country's population grew more than tenfold in the next 60 years, and by the time of Saddam Hussein in had a large Shi'ite majority. Its Shi'ite politicians, including Nuri Al-Malilki, became clients of the Iranian theocracy after 1979, as Filkins showed in another New Yorker recently. They were more bitter than ever after their uprising was brutally suppressed in 1991, after the first Gulf War. Nine years ago, on December 3, 2005, I commented on the results of one of the first postwar elections on Iraq. The voting had broken down completely on religious lines, splitting Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds. When the new Shi'ite-dominated government was established under Al-Maliki, the power shift was evident. That was why the uprising against the American occupation became so violent in Sunni areas. That, in turn, led to General Petraeus's appointment, and to the surge in 2007.
What General Petraeus showed was that a mixture of careful political management--paying off Sunnit tribal leaders to wean them away from the insurgents--and substantial American force could quiet the situation down and make the intervention look like a success. There was, however, no way either to secure the loyalty of the Sunnis to the Shi'ite government, or to get that government to agree to an indefinite American presence. Obama is now accused of carrying on the negotiations for a status of forces agreement that would have allowed us to remain "half-heartedly," but there was never any evidence that any Iraqi government wanted 10,000 or so Americans to remain indefinitely, immune from Iraqi law. Maliki boasted quite recently that he had kept that from happening. As we discovered in other contexts before, from China under Chiang Kai-Shek to South Korea under Syngman Rhee and South Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem, many foreign leaders simply do not believe that the United States knows more about how to lead their countries than they do. Maliki, the Bush Administration's eventual chosen instrument, is no exception.
Loyalty and determination hold armies together. Those qualities were generally lacking in the South Vietnamese Army, another one which we tried to build and train, and it collapsed the first time that it had to face the North Vietnamese on its own. The billions the United States made available to the Iraqis could not make up for their lack of common purpose. The ISIS, on the other hand, has been fighting for some time in Syria, and it knows exactly what it wants. So do the Kurds, who have established a strong state and a strong army, even if they technically remain part of Iraq.
We will never know how politics would have been different in the Middle East if the Bush Administration had not invaded Iraq. The evidence from Egypt and Syria suggests that the authoritarian regimes that have ruled much of the region for decades were bound to come under threat, and that some territories were likely to fall into chaos. We surely, however, accelerated that process, and now it is out of control. The Germans might well have felt the same way about the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which they made possible by defeating the Russian Army so thoroughly during the First World War. Not until Hitler, however, did they make an all-out effort to undo that result, and the consequences turned out to be disastrous for Germany. Having helped set the disintegration of the Middle East in motion, we cannot arrest, much less reverse it. It will play itself out by its own rules.
Neoconservatives will continue to blame the Obama Administration for what is happening in Iraq, and even for what is happening in Syria. There many are still looking for a mythical "third force," a group of anti-regime moderates that can prevail both against the Assad regime and Sunni extremists. Graham Green wrote about the American search for a third force in South Vietnam sixty years ago in The Quiet American. Similarly, Thomas Friedman in the New York Times writes one column after another arguing that the peoples of the region simply want to live in western-style democracies--only wicked rulers stand in the way.
I would suggest that the time has come for the United States to look inward before we are too critical of the Iraqis. Our own government is just as divided between Republicans and Democrats as theirs is between religious factions. Indeed, religion plays an important part in our divide, too. We, like the Iraqis, cannot agree on solutions to some truly fundamental problems, such as the status of millions of non-citizens within our nation and the control of our borders. I strongly suspect that if a Democrat wins in 2016 we may be threatened with the break-up of the nation. The image of a diverse nation in which the inhabitants regard themselves as citizens first, allowing them to rise above religious, regional and other differences, remains in inspiring one. It is no longer, sadly, the kind of nation in which we now live.