Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Iraq: Allah Have Mercy

by Steven A. Cook
June 30, 2014

Iraqi Shi'ite politician Ahmed Chalabi (Saad Shalash/Courtesy Reuters).


It seems impossible, but it is true.  President Barack Obama was elected to the highest office in the land in 2008 in part because after five years in Iraq, he promised the American people that he would not “do stupid stuff.”  He is about to do precisely that in Iraq.  It is not just the “I-don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry” feeling I had when I learned the news that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk had met with Ahmed Chalabi the week before last to discuss the current crisis and Chalabi’s potential role in a new government. The irony is too much to take, but the dalliance with Chalabi is not actually the issue.  Chatting up Chalabi is just a symptom of a bigger, albeit more abstract, problem the Obama and Bush administrations have had in Iraq:  Bad assumptions.

I remember attending a debate at the Brookings Institution in late 2002 about the prospects for an invasion of Iraq.  As it turned out it was not much of a debate.  The Bush administration was barreling toward war anyway and the panel was stacked.  The speakers on the roster that day included Patrick Clawson, Ken Pollack, William Kristol, and Robert Pelletreau.  Only Pelletreau, who had served as Assistant Secretary of State for the Near Eastern Affairs and ambassador to Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt, warned of the grave consequences of the invasion. Despite his stature, no one much took Pelletreau’s reservations seriously. From the other panelists, the audience got the full cakewalk:

  • Iraqis would greet Americans as liberators;
  • Resistance would be minimal;
  • The occupation of the country would be short;
  • Iraq would be able to rebuild itself.

There was precious little discussion of the potential challenges of finding a practical governing formula in a country whose citizens had suffered through so much and who had very different ideas about the future.  In a testament to the power of the polemics of the moment, everyone at Brookings that afternoon just assumed that Iraq would become a democracy.

There was no doubt a lot of mendacity that went into Operation Iraqi Freedom, but many of the assumptions about the war and its aftermath were based on naïveté.  With rare exception, the supporters of the invasion both inside and outside the Bush administration but did not have a firm grasp of Middle Eastern history, politics, or culture, though they clearly had strong feelings about the region.  This is a long way of saying—something which I am sure I have written in any number of other posts—that to have a good foreign policy, you need good assumptions and unfortunately for the untold number of Iraqis who were killed and maimed as well as the 4,486 Americans who lost their lives in combat, in addition to the 32,226 injured, the Bush team went head-long into Iraq with bad assumptions.

The Obama administration is about to make the same mistake.  They are operating under a set of assumptions about Iraq that are wrong:

  • If leaders in Iraq were more inclusive, “this would not be happening.”

The “this” being the ability of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham—which has now renamed itself the Islamic State—to take over large swathes of the country with the help of other militant groups and, importantly, large numbers of Iraqis.  It may be true that Maliki’s brand of politics alienated a lot of people, but centralizing power seems to be an iron law of Iraqi politics.  If potential leaders like Adel Abdul Mahdi, Ahmed Chalabi, Bayan Jabber, or Ibrahim al Jaafri are going to want to consolidate their power and rule Iraq, they are not likely to choose inclusion no matter how much that makes sense to external observers.

  • External forces can make a difference in the fight now underway in Iraq.

My guess is that the administration simultaneously does and does not believe this.  Apparently, the White House believes the 300 special forces operators who have been deployed to Iraq can provide enough in the way of coordination, intelligence, and generalized bucking up that Iraqi forces will find it within them to fight.  It seems a stretch.  If the administration really believed that the United States could make a difference, it would deploy a large number of forces.  The reluctance to do that may be a result of politics, of course.  It may also be the recognition that the policy prescriptions of the administration’s most vocal opponents would require an occupation of Iraq in perpetuity.  Think about that for a moment: A U.S. occupation of a major Middle Eastern country for decades to come.  Spare me the comparisons to Korea, Japan, Germany, and the Balkans.  They do not work.

  • The Islamic State is nothing but an extremist group that will outlive its welcome.

This sounds like a reasonable assumption to make. The first iteration of al Qaeda in Iraq engaged in such a repugnant range of behaviors that it sowed its own demise when the tribes of western Iraq rose up—with the help of money and American arms—against the terrorists.  According to endless press reports, the Islamic State is so awful and violent that even al Qaeda central could not countenance the excesses of the group. (The real reason for the split is not Ayman al Zawahiri’s sudden revulsion at the violent methods of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, but rather competition over who gets to lead the transnational jihadist movement.)  As a result, the Islamic State is going to go the same way as its forebearer.  There are two problems with this assumption.  First, as Thanassis Cambanis makes clear in an interesting article in Sunday’s Boston Globe, the Islamic State actually has something to offer the Sunnis now under its flag—a semblance of citizenship that is impossible in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. Second, this is not 2006. As the Turks say, “You can’t bathe in the same bath water twice.” The “awakening” that eventually disposed of al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups that terrorized the country from 2004-2007 happened simultaneously with (or almost simultaneously with) the surge of American forces, which is not happening again.

  • Iraq makes sense

There are, no doubt, many people who believe themselves to be Iraqi, but the events of the last decade have brought the ungainly beast that is Iraq into sharp relief.  It is the amalgamation of three Ottoman provinces that Colonel Arnold Wilson—the British High Commissioner in Mesopotamia from 1918-1920—dreamed up because a central administrative unit governed from Baghdad would better serve London’s interests in the area.  The violence that has plagued the country since the American invasion—which has produced demographic shifts—the surreal politics, and the heightened ethnic and sectarian tensions it has produced do not bode well for the country’s future.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, Iraq no longer makes sense to the people who live there.  The Kurds want to pull away, the tribes of Anbar do not like being ruled from Baghdad, and in the south, the people in Basra, for example, believe that they could do better without the rest of the country. Unity has become a fiction to many, especially to the Kurds who never felt much a part of Iraq anyway. It is, of course, possible that different groups will unite against the Islamic State and its Baathist allies of the moment, but that does not in and of itself strengthen the assumption that people still accept the idea of Iraq.

After all that has happened in the last three weeks, it is still hard to know what the administration wants in Iraq.  Other than the end of Maliki and the defeat of the Islamic State, what is Washington’s goal?  The assumptions underlying the White House’s tactical approach to the problems that Iraq now presents do not line up with reality.  Both are rather worrying.  Without good assumptions and a clear objective based on those assumptions, the United States risks getting stuck in the maelstrom that is now Iraq.  Allah have mercy…


Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Carlos Tr

    An excellent analysis, the best I have read so far (and I have read a lot of them). The only question that comes to mind is what will happened when Iraq disintegrates? Would it be better or worse in the long run? I can’t think about anything that can elucidate this already complex equation.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Bad assumptions, yes. Well and truly said. But why do smart, presumably competent people use bad assumptions when they have the research capacities of the United States government, and places like the Brookings Institution at their disposal ?

    The answer to that question does not lie with a diagnosis of simple error. People working at these levels of government do not make simple errors. They make complicated ones.

    Here is my theory. At this level of government, officials feel free to pick and chose their assumptions to suit their policy preferences. For instance, George W. Bush wanted to invade Iraq and do away with Saddam Hussein. For that reason, it was convenient to assume that he posed a threat to America. Or like the economics professor once said, if the facts do not fit the theory, throw out the facts, and get new ones.

    Thus I think you have touched on something that requires deeper explanation. You have not arrived at that explanation, but you certainly are moving towards it when in closing you state in effect that you can not make heads or tails of the Obama administration’s approach to the distressing situation in Iraq.

    That most certainly is how I feel. I can not figure out from their public statements what they want to see happen, much less anticipate the actions that they will take. And believe me, I read these tea leaves very frequently and carefully.

    Thus, I find the reason for this to be that our President and his close national security advisors simply do not in fact know what they want, much less, which assumptions to pick. They appear to be baffled by events.

    Time and again, when trying to make sense of our policies towards both Iraq and Syria, and by the way, Ukraine, I have found myself thinking of “the old cat in the adage”: words that come from Macbeth. They have proven to be of help to me in this respect, and so I will now repeat them for you:

    “Cattus wult piscem sed. Non wult flumen tangere.”

    It is Lady Macbeth, deriding her husband. “The cat wants to eat the fish, But it does not want to get its paw wet.”

    That is all that is going on here.

    President Obama wanted to see regime change occur in Syria. But he did not want to have anything to do with it. And so he said a few years back that although it was not in our national interest to get involved there, things would be different if the Assad regime used chemical weapons. It proved otherwise.

    There is a name for this type of behavior. It is called posturing.

    Similarly, the President has said that the United States is prepared to come to the aid of Iraq in its effort to rid itself of the current ISIS led Sunni rebellion – but only if, if, Prime Minister al Maliki will form a “national unity government”. Thus has he turned the worst outcome to our invasion of Iraq that anyone in 2003 could have imagined, in to an occasion for proposing an impossible horse trade with a nominal ally.

    Here is your first assumption supposedly at work, but I must observe that it really is not genuine. The President is merely posturing. He is setting impossible conditions upon his offer of assistance. And I will credit him with having the brains to know it.

    Fact is, the President like other Americans, would like to see ISIS annihilated. Short of that, he would like to see its gains in Iraq rolled back. Indeed, he would like to see peace in Iraq, and the entire Middle East. But he does not want to side with the al Maliki government, which is to say, with Shiites.

    Cattus wult piscem sed. Non wult flumen tangere.

    Iraq is now mortally wounded. And soon, as many have predicted since the time of our invasion, it will be no more.

    Respectfully submitted,

  • Posted by Michal Zapendowski

    Not everyone who supported the Iraq War did so based on “bad assumptions.” I strongly supported the 2003 invasion (and continue to this day) for the same reason that in 1943, I would have supported bombing the train tracks leading to Auschwitz. Saddam Hussein’s regime was conservatively estimated to be responsible for the deaths of over 1 million innocent Iraqis.

    The “pacifist” mindset (which also opposed U.S. intervention in WW2) is willing to turn a blind eye to such atrocities so long as “we aren’t the ones doing the killing.” This is a Pontius Pilate mindset. I, for one, am not willing to sit idly by while a million innocent human beings are murdered by a fascist regime similar to those built by Himmler and Beria. Those who argued that “Saddam was just another dictator,” similar to ones being propped up by the United States, were themselves demonstrating their ignorance of the situation in Iraq, as well as the vast gulfs that separate different kinds of dictatorships.

    Of course, 140,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the invasion (according to Those, too, are human lives. But who is maintaining a Body Count of Iraqis that would have been killed by Saddam’s regime if he was still in power? Even in peacetime, he murdered many thousands per year, not counting those his regime tortured and maimed. Add to that the likely bloodbath that would have ensued when the Arab Spring hit an Iraq still ruled by Saddam.

    Of course none of that changes the fact that both the Bush and Obama Administrations have been misguided by a slew of bad assumptions. I wrote a column 8 years ago that predicted exactly what is happening today, and explained what could have been done to prevent it:

    If only we lived in a perfect world, we could choose the perfect option. In 2003, that would have been an international, UN-backed humanitarian intervention whose goal was to depose Saddam Hussein’s genocidal regime and facilitate the decentralization and partition of Iraq (as peacefully as possible) into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions, using overwhelming international force to stamp out and minimize the accompanying bloodshed. Each region should have been ruled by an autonomous, democratically-elected government. The success of the Kurdish region with its government in Erbil shows that this model was workable (as does the success of the democratic governments that emerged from the former Yugoslavia).

    Unfortunately, the perfect option was not on the table. We had to choose between the pacifists — who were willing to turn a blind eye to the deaths of another million Iraqis, so long as Saddam was killing them (“none of our business”) — and the warmongers, who blundered into regime change with no idea what to do afterwards. I still hold to my choice of the latter, even if I can understand why many believe that it was better to side with the former.

  • Posted by Michael P

    Idealistically, let the tribes re-emerge with sovereignty and split Iraq into sections. Then, however, you are herding cats to get consensus. Better to consolidate political power in Iraq and then shape the outcomes, as the British did in 1920. Then profits from oil could be realized with relative stability. It is always, “follow the money”. And those that profit have blinders on about the political reality, and they influence those in power who need their funding for election. And that soup has played out in Iraq. 100 years of intervention of one sort or another (Sadam is our friend, Sadam is our enemy) and we are here today. Time to take the blinders off.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required