America’s Top Five Mistakes in Iraq

The fall of Ramadi to the fanatical forces of the Islamic State, a big strategic win for the insurgents, has concentrated minds about just how badly things have gone in Iraq for the last dozen years, since American forces annihilated Saddam Hussein’s Ba’thist regime. As at Mosul last year, small numbers of Da’ish mujahidin in Anbar have pushed away far greater numbers of Iraqi troops like a wet rag. An Islamic State drive on Baghdad now seems a question of when, not if.

President Obama continues to engage in public denial, and his incantation that he doesn’t “think” we’re losing in Iraq does not inspire confidence that a much-needed strategic reassessment is taking place inside the White House. To be fair, American policies towards Iraq since 2003 have been one huge trillion-dollar escapism, with many sub-varieties, but Obama’s unwillingness to admit there’s a big problem at hand smacks of his predecessor’s escapism in 2004-06 about just how badly things were going in that troubled country.

There seems little doubt that Who Lost Iraq? will feature prominently in the 2016 election cycle, and we’re already getting a taste of how nasty and a-historical that debate will be. Gotcha questions will feature prominently, as will completely unreality-based discussions that have nothing to do with how the 2003 invasion actually came to pass (for an antidote, read this). To aid any sort of meaningful — and very necessary — political dialogue about Iraq, allow me to present five issues that need dispassionate discussion.

These are the product of my own experiences, including working as an intelligence officer in the early stages of the Iraq war and later employment as a strategic consultant to the Pentagon on certain aspects of the post-Saddam disaster. These are jumping-off points for the discussion, not the final word on anything. But if they aid serious debating, not partisan shouting, that would be a good thing.

1. The Invasion: I fail to see how any serious person cannot now think that deposing Saddam Hussein was a terrible mistake. He was a genocidal monster, to be sure, but the essential wisdom of Bush 41 in 1991 — that throwing the Ba’thists out of Baghdad would only open the door to Iranian hegemony, a choice that got him much criticism at the time — seems fully justified by subsequent events. It must be kept in mind that, by 2001, Saddam felt — pretty much correctly, it must be said — that he had triumphed over a decade of onerous Western sanctions, and he was coming off his leash even before 9/11. Similarly, “regime change” in Iraq was the policy of the Clinton administration, in its second term, so starting history with hanging chads in Florida is deeply misguided. Given the strategic realities of the time, including the idées fixes of the Beltway smart set of the era, it’s frankly difficult to see how an Iraq invasion was avoidable in the hothouse atmosphere that swept the capital after 9/11: a President Gore would have very likely done the same thing, no matter what he says today.

2. That Phase IV: I can still half-defend getting rid of Saddam, who ruined his country well before U.S. troops reached Baghdad, but I cannot excuse, in any fashion, the appalling lack of Pentagon planning about what to do after his nasty regime fell. Simply put, there was hardly any serious planning done by Central Command for what was termed Phase IV of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. Hence the chaos and catastrophic ad-hoccery that followed in the decisive weeks and months after Saddam fled his capital, the period when an insurgency could have been averted, but was not. While Donald Rumsfeld and his cronies bear a lot of blame for this, at least as much belongs on the shoulders of appallingly stupid CENTCOM leaders and planners who succumbed to wishful thinking of the highest order in 2003. The Royal Navy used to shoot admirals for a lot less than Tommy Franks did, and the greatest mystery of all is how this all happened, since under Franks’ predecessor at CENTCOM, Tony Zinni, war plans for Iraq consisted mostly of Phase IV stuff, since it was commonly understood that overthrowing Saddam, who had never rebuilt his conventional military power after 1991, would be the easy part — cleaning up the mess after constituted the real challenge.

3. About That Surge: As we know, chaos and insurgency did follow Saddam’s fall. It was probably inevitable that nasty sectarian-cum-ethnic struggles would emerge in Saddam’s wake, given decades of Ba’thist policies that inflamed those passions, but a war that consumed much of Iraq was avoidable, yet it was not avoided. Here, again, Rumsfeld and his Pentagon deserve a lot of blame for their willful escapism — which means that buck ultimately stopped with Dubya — but a succession of idiot generals in Iraq should get blame too. The U.S. Army at its worst was on display in Iraq, 2003-06; history will not be kind, nor should it be. These failures were then saved by the miraculous Surge of hoary Beltway myth. David Petraeus, using brainpower and cunning, turned the tide in Iraq in 2006-07, or so his fans and FoxNews talking heads have said nonstop for years. The Surge is a half-truth, the true part being that by 2006, it represented the least-bad strategic option on the table; but it is a myth all the same, as I’ve explained before, and in some ways a pernicious one. In particular, it white-washes the reality that, under the guise of The Surge, Baghdad’s Sunnis got ethnically cleansed away by their Shia enemies, while Sunnis in Anbar, who sided with Americans, temporarily and decisively, against fanatical mujahidin during The Surge — for the right price, as always — would eventually realize that we were going to leave them in a Shia-run Iraq that hates them

4. Pulling Out At Any Cost: Political illiteracy has been the signature feature of our all-but-endless Iraq war. A basic unwillingness to see Iraq as Iraqis see it — a country profoundly divided by sectarianism and hatreds that run centuries-deep — has meant that America has pursued inherently contradictory policies that guarantee long-term failure. This is much like the foolish hash Washington, DC, made of Bosnia, due to basic blindness about the country, but with far worse strategic consequences. The advice of Vice President (then Senator) Joe Biden in 2007 to divide up Iraq into self-governing Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish entities, while maintaining a notionally united country (in other words, to make it like Bosnia: dysfunctional but not totally failed) was the least-bad outcome at the time, and its not being pursued looks like a tragic what-if, in hindsight (as does Biden’s sage advice, early in Obama’s first term, to scale-down U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, which the president ignored in favor of his own Surge in that country, which predictably failed to deliver as advertised: one suspects history will look upon Joe Biden as the Last Wise Man in our capital). Obama wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as possible, and it’s hard to blame him for that, once he realized the full scale of the disaster he had inherited from his predecessor. That said, if you don’t want to make hard choices, don’t run for president, and by any fair accounting the list of Obama’s mistakes in Iraq — pulling out too quickly, not taming Shia abuses against Sunnis, leaving the Iraqi military unready to stand alone, and above all failing to secure a Status of Forces Agreement with Baghdad — is long and painful.

5. Not Defeating Da’ish: Given the political errors of both the Bush and Obama administrations in Iraq, some sort of Sunni revolt against the rampant Shia thuggery emanating from the top in Baghdad was inevitable. Yet the insurgency that has emerged with a vengeance, which now threatens the Iraqi state itself, was not preordained, and represents the outcome of many things, including mistakes inside the Beltway. When Da’ish burst on the scene in a big way in Iraq last summer, trouncing far greater numbers of Iraqi troops, diligent use of Western airpower and special operations forces could have blunted it — as I explained here and here, in detail —  through attrition. That was still a viable option early this year, as I elaborated, but the lack of willpower in the Obama White House to employ lethal force persistently has led to a terrible outcome. For want of reality-based planning and toughness in Washington, DC, Da’ish is on the march and airpower and SOF alone may not suffice to halt their genocidal advance now. Certainly Obama’s diffident application of force against the Islamic State to date has been grossly insufficient to attrit the enemy in anything less than decades, as has been evident for some time. By wanting to avoid war, Obama may have helped cause a far greater one than anything yet seen in post-Saddam Iraq.

At this point, Obama’s Iraq war, which he tried and failed to get out of, has lasted longer than Bush’s Iraq war. Neither has been anything resembling a success. There is ample blame to go around. It is important now that our Iraq debates not become even more freighted down with partisan food-fighting than they already are, since the consequences of more Da’ish victories will be terrible. But we cannot assess what to do now if we cannot honestly reckon with the mistakes that we have already made in Iraq. Who Lost Iraq? We all did.