Obama’s Impossible Choices on Iraq

June 16th, 2014

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Iraq was a bold U.S. experiment in nation-building. It turned out to be a flop.

That’s what we’re learning as we watch what the United States achieved there evaporate after nine years of war, after nearly 4,500 Americans were killed, 32,000 wounded and $800 billion in U.S. taxpayer money spent.

When George W. Bush first ran for president in 2000, he expressed contempt for nation-building. It was a point he made in rally after rally. “I’m worried about the fact I’m running against a man,” Bush said, “who uses ‘military’ and ‘nation-building’ in the same sentence.”

But what were U.S. troops doing in Iraq four years later if not nation-building?

The U.S. military can do many things supremely well. They are all military things — like fighting wars, repelling invasions and providing security. But nation-building — the task that devolved upon them in both Iraq and Afghanistan — is political, not military. And politics is not something the military can do very well. Nor should anyone expect it to.

The United States spent a fortune on training and equipping the Iraqis.  But Iraqi soldiers just laid down their arms and surrendered to the jihadist invaders in northern Iraq. “The problem is not advice.  The problem is not arms and equipment.  They’ve got a load of this stuff,” Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Politico.  “The problem is they don’t fight. . . . There’s nothing to fight for because they don’t believe in the government.”

Washington expected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to build a consensus government in Iraq.  But he was ill-equipped and unwilling to do so. Maliki is the leader of a Shi’ite political party. He has been distrustful and suspicious of Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities and has done little to share power with them. As a result, the minorities feel little loyalty to the Iraqi government and are unwilling to fight for its survival.

Iraq is disintegrating. The civil war in Syria is precipitating a civil war in Iraq between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, with Kurds seizing the opportunity to establish their own autonomous, if not independent, state. It’s an impossible choice for the United States.  The Shi’ites are supported by Iran, the Sunnis by al Qaeda.

The Bush administration actually believed we could export democracy to the Middle East. Bush announced the “Bush Doctrine” in 2005, in his second Inaugural Address. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” Bush declared. “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Set aside the fact that that is an arguable proposition. Would the United States really be more secure if countries like Saudi Arabia became democracies? When Egypt and Gaza held democratic elections, Islamist parties won. Nor is it by any means clear that U.S. policymakers understand enough about other countries’ politics to somehow turn them into functioning democracies.

What is clear is that the American public hates political wars. Americans believe the U.S. military should be used to win military victories — not to intervene in other countries’ politics or keep unreliable foreign governments in power.   Which is exactly what the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan — and Vietnam.

“We certainly don’t want to fight their fight,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week, “because you’d be fighting for a dysfunctional, unrepresentative, authoritarian government.  There’s no reason on earth that I know of that we would ever sacrifice a single American life for that.”

Now President Barack Obama is facing his own impossible choice. We will almost certainly be forced to intervene in Iraq. “We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria,” Obama said last week.

The president has promised not to send ground troops. But it is unclear what air strikes can accomplish. We will need special operations forces and intelligence agents on the ground to identify targets. And we may have to strike targets in Syria.

The debate over “Who lost Iraq? has already begun in the United States.  Republicans blame Obama for pulling out of Iraq too soon, though the decision to withdraw U.S. troops in 2011 was overwhelmingly popular.  “Our failure to leave forces in Iraq is why . . . I predicted this would happen,” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.

But what could U.S. troops do? “We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we’re there, we’re keeping a lid on things,” Obama said.

It was really Maliki who lost Iraq. It was hopelessly naive for Washington to believe that the United States could somehow turn a sectarian politician like Maliki into a model democrat.

The United States is skilled at exporting arms and equipment and advice. We are no good at all at exporting democratic politics.

This piece was originally published via Reuters.