CoverStory

The case against the new Iraq war

The mission sounds like a noble cause, but this road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions

By Tom Switzer

For the third time in as many decades, the United States is leading a coalition of allies into Iraq. But unlike president George H.W. Bush’s liberation of Kuwait in 1991 — and like president George W. Bush’s liberation of Iraq in 2003 — President Barack Obama’s war-by-any-other-name in 2014 is bound to fail.

Indeed, what is amazing about the US-led mission in Iraq, which has expanded into Syria, is the extent to which there is already serious skepticism in America about the strategy and prospects for success. When even pro-Obama and pro-war media outlets such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal respectively slam his campaign, as they all too often do in their editorials, you know the President is on shaky ground.

At first glance, the mission to degrade and destroy the jihadist terrorist group known as Islamic State sounds like a noble and just cause, as Mary Kissel argues in this issue. But as I have argued elsewhere, if one wants to be effective and not merely to feel virtuous, the process of eradicating what is essentially a disparate group of Sunni militants must be recognised as complicated and fraught with the danger of unintended consequences. This is all the more so when one is dealing with artificial states and medieval societies.

Many supporters of the intervention posit three main arguments: that there is no link between the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the mayhem that has spread across north-west Iraq in 2014; that the threat posed by IS represents a clear and present danger around the world; and that the mission to degrade and destroy the terrorist group can primarily be accomplished with air power. Each position is implausible. Moreover, far from draining the swamps of jihadism in Iraq and Syria, there is a danger that the new military campaign could replenish them.

 

Start with the observation widely held among neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists that the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime has had nothing to do with the demise of the Iraqi state. The rise of IS in 2014, we are told, has to do with Western inaction in Syria’s civil war, former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s kleptocratic rule and President Obama’s withdrawal of US forces in late 2011.

There is, to be sure, some truth to each explanation. Syria’s Sunni terrorist fighters have spilled into Iraq and destabilised the region. From 2006 to 2014, Maliki had been more interested in seeking revenge against his political and sectarian rivals, especially the Sunni Arabs, than in building a nation. And the withdrawal of US troops helped scuttle the semblance of sectarian peace that Washington had brokered following the surge in 2007.

But the taproot of this disaster was the decision to launch a preventive war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. It was this event that sparked the other contributing causes to the debacle unfolding across Iraq in 2014.

The architects of the war — such as vice president Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, egged on by neo-conservative thinkers such as Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, and Max Boot; publications such as The Weekly Standard, the Washington Post editorial page, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page; and Washington-based think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation — thought that the “liberation” of the Iraqi people from a brutal dictatorship would lead to a flourishing liberal democracy. But the goal of exporting democracy to an arbitrarily created state and ethnically and tribally fractured society was bound to be so messy and so dangerous that it was not worth so much blood and treasure.

The Baathists, like the Hashemites and British before them, had kept in place minority rule, giving Sunni Arabs a disproportionate share of power and resources while also brutally suppressing Shia and Kurds.

By invading Iraq and toppling Saddam’s regime, the US-led coalition ended that imbalance. The majority Shia became the new winners, the minority Sunnis the new losers.

The result has been a violent rebalancing act in Iraqi society. As Vali Nasr points out in The Shia Revival and Forces of Fortune, the Sunni insurgency fought both the US occupation and the Shia ascendancy it facilitated. The insurgents wanted the Americans gone so they could restore Sunni dominance over Iraq. And with the US withdrawal, the Sunnis escalated their bloody sectarian war against the Shia-run government.

To say again: it was the US invasion that shattered the Sunni-run state, which allowed age-old ethnic and sectarian tensions to resurface. The result has been Iraq’s descent into anarchy and violence. If one remains unconvinced about the link between the invasion and the mayhem today, think about it this way: before March 2003, there was no terrorism problem in Iraq. Since “liberation,” however, Iraq has attracted jihadists like flies on a dying animal.

Add to this the flawed justifications for the war (weapons of mass destruction) as well as the unintended consequences (Iran’s strengthened position in the region) and it’s no wonder the eminent historian Tony Judt called the Iraq invasion “the worst foreign policy error in American history.” One can recognise Saddam was a murderous gangster and still believe this Sound of Music–loving secularist, denounced by Osama bin Laden as an “infidel,” had been kept in his box via the tried and tested policy of containment: sanctions, naval blockade, no-fly zone, and deterrence.

It was this strategy that defined the United States’ Iraq policy during the Bush Sr and Clinton administrations. When he was defense secretary, Dick Cheney defended Washington’s decision not to topple Saddam on realist grounds. Shortly after the ejection of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, he said:

It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that’s currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Baathists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists?

How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?

Although Cheney expressed similar sentiments during the 1990s, he jettisoned that logic after 9/11. America and the Middle East have been living with the consequences ever since.

This history is important in understanding the crisis in Iraq. Yet many supporters of the invasion remain in denial, instead blaming Obama’s “premature” exit in 2011 for unravelling the fragile unity government and removing all that was keeping the sectarian rivals in check.

What is rarely acknowledged, however, is that it was the Bush administration that signed a status-of-forces agreement in December 2008, which pledged to withdraw all US troops by the end of 2011. During lengthy negotiations on keeping American forces in Iraq after 2011, the Maliki government — encouraged by its main backer Iran — insisted that all remaining US personnel be subject to Iraqi law. This was a demand to which Washington could not possibly agree. Moreover, Obama was fulfilling an election mandate to withdraw troops from a widely unpopular war.

True, the US “surge” in early 2007 bought some time to allow national elections to take place, but never enough time to get the sectarian mess of post-Saddam Iraq to try to resolve itself peacefully and form a viable non-sectarian polity. Besides, it was inevitable that once Washington withdrew US forces, the hatred, rivalries, and vengefulness that are so much a part of Iraq’s religious, sectarian, and tribal animosities would erupt. Would the critics of Obama’s failure to reach a new residual forces deal with Baghdad in 2011 really countenance staying forever in Iraq? 

Hawks insist that the invasion had nothing to do with the formation of IS, because its operation emanates from Syria. The truth, though, is that IS is directly linked to al Qaeda in Iraq, which was created in response to the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation, not to mention the creation of a Shia regime in Baghdad. Remember Musab al-Zarqawi and the torrent of horror his Sunni extremists unleashed from 2003 to 2007? Although the “surge” helped persuade the Sunni tribes to turn against the jihadists, the withdrawal of US troops and the Syrian civil war in 2011 helped allow the insurgency-turned-terrorist groups to re-energise.

Hawks also maintain that if Obama had intervened more assertively in Syria in 2011–12 there would have been less instability and violence, and the Islamists would never have been able to exploit vacuums in that war-torn nation. But it’s difficult to understand the logic of this argument, given that more than 150,000 US and coalition troops had occupied Iraq from the invasion in 2003 to the time of withdrawal in 2011. During that period, anywhere between 130,000 and 500,000 Iraqi civilians died and more than a million, including most of the country’s Christians, fled the country. Islamist extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, which subsequently morphed into IS, flourished during the US-led occupation. The point here is that notwithstanding an assertive American presence in Iraq — the kind of proactive intervention that John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and others have called for in Syria since 2011 — the barbarity and bloodshed that we’ve witnessed in Syria were also taking place in Iraq during the US occupation.

Why then are Iraq and Syria so similar, even though the United States was heavily engaged in the former and not the latter? It’s because, as the distinguished American historian of Syria Joshua Landis argues, the long-time minority rulers in both nations have nothing left to lose. As mentioned earlier, the invasion radically altered the sectarian imbalance that had been in place for generations. This meant that the minority Sunnis embraced an insurgency that has morphed into a plethora of Sunni jihadist movements. 

The same thing has been happening in Syria since the so-called Arab Spring encouraged a rebellion in 2011 that threatened to topple Bashar al-Assad’s minority regime. The Alawites, the ruling sect in Syria — like Iraq’s Sunni Arab sects such as the former Baathists — are fighting tooth and nail in a battle for survival.

It is not clear how US intervention in Syria would have made things better. In any case, the West could apply the old diplomatic dictum “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” with excessive zeal by forming an alliance with the Assad regime — and its Iranian backer — against the Sunni jihadists. That seems unlikely.

Our leaders, most notably Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, maintain that IS poses a grave and serious danger around the world. Some hawks even suggest that Islamist terrorism is such a mighty ideological force with the power to threaten the world that it is akin to Nazism or Soviet Communism. But such analogies are inaccurate and imprudent. As Owen Harries, a long-time Cold Warrior, has argued: “It’s to belittle the historical experiences of World War II, not to speak of the Cold War, to equate the terrorists of today and the damage they’re capable of with the totalitarian regimes of the previous century.”

But if IS really posed the kind of grave threat that many opinion makers tell us, why are Western leaders so reluctant to commit ground troops? Besides, US intelligence agencies have reached a different conclusion. According to the New York Times, some US officials and terror experts believe “the actual danger has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians.”

We are really talking about, as Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard University has observed, a “lightly armed group of bloody-minded radicals whose new ‘caliphate’ extends over a lot of mostly empty territory” in north-west Iraq. Yes, the jihadists have seized modern military equipment and have the potential to gain revenues from some oil fields. They also appear to be better organised than other terrorist groups.

But IS has about a standard US Army division of 20,000 troops (though the CIA has claimed that IS has recruited an extra 10,000 since the start of the US air-campaign in Iraq in August). It has no navy or air force. It can defeat small units of divided, poorly trained, and demoralised troops, such as the Iraq units it routed earlier this year north of Baghdad, but not a decent military with resolve. It’s a predominantly Sunni group that will not be able to expand into non-Sunni areas. IS, at least without Western help, can’t topple Assad, or Jordan, or the Shia regime in Baghdad — whose forces, together with its Iran backer, outnumber IS by 100 to one.

Writing in the Washington Post, Middle East expert Ramzy Mardini points out that the IS’s “fundamentals are weak,” that its “extreme ideology, spirit of subjugation, and acts of barbarism prevent it from becoming a political venue for the masses,” and it’s “completely isolated, encircled by enemies.” Yes, the group is a bunch of brutal thugs — beheadings are especially grisly — but there is a danger in allowing its choice of execution methods to drive Western strategy. Make no mistake: the jihadists want the United States and its allies to intervene in order to drum up anti-Americanism and drive up recruitment numbers for their cause. 

If IS tries to conquer and occupy Baghdad, it would find itself in a giant quagmire. There are many Shia who would resist, and it’s likely the Iranians would commit overwhelming firepower to reverse any IS intervention. Even if, for argument’s sake, the Sunni extremists conquer all of Iraq, it remains unclear how US core strategic interests are directly threatened. Realists could argue with some justification that a powerful Sunni Iraq could balance a Shia Iran, which Washington has long feared is a terror-sponsoring power that wants to dominate the region. After all, the US decision to back Saddam, a Sunni, from 1982 to 1988 was made in order to balance the power of the new Islamic Republic of Iran.

It is true that the locals in Sunni towns such as Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah did not resist jihadist intervention during the northern summer, despite the fact that many are horrified by IS’s violence and death cults. The same could be said of the Sunnis in Raqqa, IS’s Syrian capital. But Iraq’s Sunnis (like Syria’s Sunnis) fear the sectarian Shia-led regime in Baghdad (and the Assad regime in Damascus) and the pro-government militias more than they do the Sunni militia groups.

Since 2003, and especially since Nouri al-Maliki came to power in 2006, Sunnis insist the Shia-led government in Iraq has marginalised and discriminated against Iraq’s minority Muslim sect. All the available evidence indicates that Sunnis will not feel represented in Baghdad under al-Maliki’s successor Haider al-Abadi, whose government is still dominated by Iranian-funded Shia religious parties.

 

Then there is the breezy confidence that this mission to degrade and destroy IS — to “follow them to the gates of hell,” as Vice-President Joe Biden has put it — will be painless and relatively easy. But this task is more complicated and potentially more hazardous than many hawks appear to realise. Above all else, the US-led coalition needs the prospect of a political solution as well as formidable regional ground forces to couple with its air power. Both conditions are seriously lacking.

The White House view, widely shared by foreign policy analysts, is that the authoritarian Maliki was the main obstacle to the creation of an inclusive government that would unify Iraq. If only the different Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish sects could reconcile their differences, the argument goes, the prospects for a genuinely inclusive and viable state would increase. But this is foreign policy in service of Rodney King and his question during the Los Angeles Riots in 1992: “Can we all get along?” Alas, Iraqis can’t all get along, because the hatred, rivalries, and vengefulness are so much part of Iraqi religious, sectarian, and tribal animosities.

The West thinks a military attack is a justified response to both the mayhem that the IS is inflicting across the region and the creation of a potential haven for a new generation of jihadists. Many Sunni Iraqis think differently. For them, a US-led campaign may reaffirm the potent narrative that Washington tolerates, even facilitates, a violent Shia offensive, and that when non-Sunni groups are threatened, it is the Americans who act on behalf of the Shia-led government in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, if the Sunnis feel their loss in the post-Saddam Hussein era remains absolute, they may decide their only recourse is to tolerate or even support Sunni militia groups. To the extent that such attitudes prevail, the new military campaign will damage, perhaps irreparably, any prospects of a genuinely inclusive government in Baghdad.

There is also a danger that the airstrikes will unite the disparate Sunni militia not just against the Iranian-backed Shia-led government but the US-led military coalition. Although IS is certainly the most brutal and best-organised terrorist group, it is hardly alone in the region. According to Jessica Mathews, president of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, IS is only one of an almost unaccountable melange of Sunni militant groups. Not to mention the tribes of central Iraq, which have a long history of resistance to any outside authority.

Mathews goes on to say that within the forces that have proved so powerful in recent months are groups with very real differences, even mutual hatred. And although they are fighting on the same side today, they won’t be together for long.

The US-led military campaign, however, could cement their bonds. Indeed, it is already clear that the strategy has turned two bitter adversaries — IS forces in Syria and the al Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra Front, who were fighting each other — into allies in a fight against the West. Recall, too, that in 2003 leaders of the “Coalition of the Willing” claimed to be combating only Saddam’s regime but were shocked to find themselves combating virtually the entire Sunni community in Iraq. Could that happen again in both Iraq and Syria?

 

As for the strategy, there are limits to airpower’s capacity to wipe out an irregular force like IS. The jihadists are not running big armoured divisions that make inviting targets. Nor are they conveniently parking all their equipment in a nice depot for the US to bomb. They can disperse or camouflage their trucks with heavy machine guns.

Even if the intensive bombing campaign identifies them easily, they may melt away, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. That air campaign was seen as wildly successful in 2001, but look at Afghanistan today. Ditto Libya a decade later. Three years since the demise of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is in permanent chaos. Sans an effective Coalition ground-force operation, militia groups have been able to reduce the country to a bloody shambles. 

This suggests that, as General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicated to Congress in September, the Coalition is not going to win with air power alone. It also needs powerful regional ground forces to, among other things, help offer bribes to and make power-sharing deals with local groups, tribes, and sects. The Iraqi army is no substitute for US ground troops. The only other two nations that are willing and able to commit combat troops to fight IS forces are Syria and Iran. Alas, the stated US policy is to topple Damascus and refuse to collaborate with Tehran. Neither nation even hosts a US embassy.

Complicating matters further is the widespread view that the new military mission is likely to far outlive the Obama presidency. At this stage, the American people overwhelmingly back the mission by more than 70 per cent. These numbers are built on a soft sand of support. There are already 1,600 US ground troops in Iraq committed to advising and training the Iraqi army and intelligence forces.

“The moment they start returning to America in body bags, or are seen being slaughtered in [IS] videos is the moment when the recent polling uptick in support for this war will evaporate,” warns Obama supporter Frank Rich in New York magazine. “That support is an inch deep, and Congress knows it.” That might explain why both Democrats and Republicans have failed to debate the war properly in Congress before the midterm elections. As Iraq and Afghanistan showed, although Americans might be easily aroused to join the battle cry, they lack the attention span and staying power to fight indefinitely. And given that the Lebanon civil war lasted 15 years, the end will probably be different from what we foresee today. Ending evil is a long, hard slog.

 

None of this is meant to criticise the US limited air strikes in early August to stop a bunch of pre-modern barbarians from slaughtering the Yazidis and other minorities in Kurdish areas in early August. It’s just that the enhanced US-led military role that will morph into a more ambitious and open-ended conflict could reinforce perceptions among even moderate Sunnis that Washington is favouring the Shia, unite Sunnis against other sects, and even boost anti-Americanism among Sunni Arabs and recruit new numbers of young disillusioned Sunnis to the jihadi cause.

Ultimately, it’s the regional actors — not just Syria and Iraq but also Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait, and even Iran — that will contain or defeat IS. The more the United States and its Western allies intervene, however, the less incentive the locals have to improve their conventional forces and work together.

Remember Washington spent about a decade using military power, and military assistance, to try to organise the politics of this ethnically and tribally divided medieval society. But the costs in blood, treasure, and credibility were not commensurate with the investment. The idea that airstrikes, backed with some special forces, can eliminate Sunni terrorism is fanciful. Meanwhile, the successful raids against Australian Islamist extremists in Sydney and Brisbane show that the best response to this threat lies primarily in intelligence, counter-terrorism measures and homeland security.

 

Not so long ago, Barack Obama agreed with the aforementioned analysis. As an Illinois legislator in 2002–03, he opposed the invasion of Iraq because he believed the strategy of containment had kept Saddam in his box. As a presidential candidate in 2007–08, he distinguished himself from his primary opponent Hillary Clinton by his opposition to the misbegotten venture. As president in 2009, he went to Cairo to call for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” And when he ran for re-election in 2012, he campaigned on the platform that nation building begins at home. 

During the debate on whether the United States should launch air strikes on the Assad regime over its reported use of chemical and biological weapons in August 2013, the President warned:

Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.

As recently as August this year, the President cautioned:

History teaches us of the dangers of overreaching and spreading ourselves too thin and trying to go it alone without international support, or rushing into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.

But the Barack Obama that has now emerged leading the new war on terror is a different man from the one announced in the program and shown in the previews. Instead of championing the prudence and realism of George H.W. Bush, he echoes the Manichaean worldview of George W. Bush.

He is now a war president leading Americans to what the New York Times warns will be “another costly and potentially lengthy conflict in the Middle East.” It’s a fair bet the new Iraq campaign will damage not just Obama’s legacy but US credibility and prestige. Again.