Melancholy Lessons from Iraq

20140111_MAP001_0The unfolding collapse of Iraq’s government before the legions of al Qaeda jihadists is the capstone of Barack Obama’s incompetent and politicized foreign policy. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), armed with plundered American weapons and flush with stolen money, is consolidating a Sunni terrorist state in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, replete with mass executions, sharia law, and the beheading of violators. With revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani calling the Shia faithful to arms, a vicious civil war between Shia and Sunnis will likely intensify in the coming days. But whoever wins, the fallout for our security will be disastrous – a Shiite “crescent” from Aleppo to Mosul allied with Iran, which looks ever more likely to be nuclear armed, and a safe haven for terrorist training camps to prepare “martyrs” for attacks against the West. And our allies Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel all will to various degrees find their own security and interests impacted by this administration’s criminal foreign policy negligence.

Obama deserves the lion’s share of the blame for many reasons. Most important is his failure to secure a status of forces agreement that would have left in Iraq sufficient American firepower to deter both Prime Minister Maliki from indulging his autocratic tendencies and abusing his power to subjugate the rival Sunnis, and the ISIS from attempting to expand its territorial reach through sectarian violence and mayhem. This catastrophic error was the result of Obama’s political narrative that he ended George Bush’s “bad” war in Iraq and brought all of our troops home, a potent campaign slogan in the 2012 presidential election. That sacrifice of America’s security and interests, and betrayal of the soldiers killed and maimed during the Iraq war – just to gratify political necessity and an ideological disbelief in the goodness of American power – will join Congress’s abandonment of Vietnam in 1973 on the roll of American foreign policy dishonor and disaster. Yet there are larger lessons from the debacle in Iraq that transcend one administration’s incompetence.

Democracy’s Foreign Policy Weaknesses

Political freedom depends on the accountability of politicians to the voters whose interests they must serve. Yet as democracy’s critics starting in ancient Athens have pointed out, electoral accountability to the conflicting interests of citizens and factions makes foreign policy difficult. “The structures and habits of democratic states,” Churchill wrote after World War II, “lack those elements of persistence and conviction which can alone give security to the humble masses.” Foreign policy often requires long-range planning and steadfastness that are compromised by two-year election cycles and the eagerness of self-interested partisan politicians to respond to the short-term interests, impatience, anger, or indifference of the citizens. The hardships of war – the loss of life, the expense, the inevitable blunders and unforeseen consequences, and the necessary brutality that define armed conflict –especially try the patience of citizens and politicians to whom military professionals are accountable. Yet giving in to such impatience can be dangerous in the long run. As Tocqueville wrote, “The people are more apt to feel than to reason; and if their present sufferings are great, it is to be feared that the still greater sufferings attendant upon defeat will be forgotten.”

The current collapse in Iraq confirms this analysis. As a senator Obama campaigned against the war in Iraq, untainted as he was by the vote to authorize the war burdening Hillary Clinton, his rival in the presidential primaries. In 2007 he vigorously opposed the “surge” in troops that would create the success he is now squandering as president, calling it a “mistake” and a “reckless escalation.” He also introduced legislation to remove all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by March 2008. He was elected to his first term in part because of the voters’ weariness of 7 years of war. Since becoming president he has acted on his campaign rhetoric that Iraq was George Bush’s “bad” war and that he would bring everybody home, most destructively by failing to secure the status of forces agreement and by setting a date-certain for withdrawal. In his Second Inaugural he claimed, “A decade of war is now ending,” and in 2013, “The war in Iraq is over, and we’ve welcomed our troops home.” Yet in these and many other boasts about ending the war, he showed no awareness that the war ended only because he abandoned the fight while the outcome was still in doubt.

Yet Obama’s political expediency has been in synch with the sentiments of a majority of Americans. A February 2014 Gallup poll found 57% thought the U.S. “made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq.” This opposition reflects a broader drift towards displeasure with intervention abroad. A December 2013 Pew poll found that 52% of Americans thought the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” a 40-year low in support for U.S. global leadership. And 80% agreed with the belief that “We should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home.” In the long term, however, this thinking is dangerous. The globalized economy that has created unprecedented worldwide prosperity requires a tutelary power subject to law and accountability, and founded on respect for human rights and freedom, to keep order. Only the United States has both the military reach and the political virtues that make us worthy of that responsibility.

Democracy Promotion

The shift of emphasis in the Iraq war’s mission from destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime to creating political freedom and democracy in Iraq was naïve and misguided. Authentic liberal democracy is not a question of electoral mechanisms like voting, those photogenic purple thumbs that we celebrated when Iraq held its first free elections. Liberal democracy comprises popular sovereignty and individual rights not just codified in laws, constitutions, and transparent and fair political procedures and institutions, but also daily reinforced and strengthened through social mores, customs, and habits. This complex nexus of virtues, principles, laws, and customs cannot be bestowed from without, but must develop organically from within, in cultural soil conduce to their growth.

As the continuing failure of the “Arab Spring” revolutions to create genuine democracies shows, the Muslim Middle East is difficult terrain for many of these democratical elements. The cultural and religious impediments are immense. The persistence of tribal and feudal mentalities about women, family honor, clan loyalty, and religious minorities; and Islamic dogmas that subordinate all political and civic life to Allah’s will and the 7th century model of Mohammed, are two of the most obvious. After all, in the West, liberal democracy took 2300 years to triumph, and even then, in the 20th century it faced existential threats from fascism, Nazism, and communism, its victory a close-run thing costing millions of lives. To think we could achieve in a few years what took the West centuries to create was and remains naïve. And to charge our military with building the infrastructure of democracy and civil society at the same time it was called upon to destroy a committed and vicious insurgency was delusional. Don’t forget that Japan’s and Germany’s democracies were built only after the occupying Allies had left both countries in ruins and millions dead.

Nations for Everybody

The rise of the nation-state created the preconditions for the creation of liberal democracy in the West by establishing a “unifying principle,” as political philosopher Pierre Manent writes, for establishing the political “communion” that gives citizens a common identity. Yet historically humans have had other “unifying principles,” such as tribal affiliation or religious faith, that give peoples their collective identities. For Muslims, Islam is the unifying force creating the supranational ummah, the global community of the faithful, which is more important than the alien Western concept of nations with distinct identities. The Ayatollah Khomeini, who created the Islamic state of Iran, the most powerful theocracy in the world, allegedly said, “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”

After World War I, however, despite these cultural and religious barriers England and France created by fiat new nations in the Muslim Middle East out of the dismantled Ottoman Empire, which had recognized the ethnic and sectarian differences of the region but subjected them to the overall theocratic rule of the Caliph. With an eye to their own national interests, the European victors created artificial, secular sovereign “nations” that ignored those differences. Hence the “nation” of Iraq was cobbled together out of 3 Ottoman Vilayets or provinces that had roughly corresponded to the concentrations of Kurds, Shia, and Sunni. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, whose brutality kept these ethnic and sectarian divisions in check, and now with the departure of the Americans, these conflicts and rivalries have erupted into the violence tearing Iraq apart today. The lesson is that flags, national anthems, and borders do not create nations any more than elections, campaigns, and political parties create democracies.

Two melancholy conclusions arise from these lessons from Iraq. First, American democracy is unsuited for the consistent, coherent, long-term foreign policy and intervention abroad required to nurture liberal democracy in other countries. Second, Islam’s doctrines and dogmas make creating true liberal democracy – with its separation of state and religion, tolerance for minorities, and respect for individual human rights and freedom – even more difficult. Again Khomeini expresses this divide between the West and traditional Islam: “Don’t listen to those who speak of democracy. They all are against Islam. They want to take the nation away from its mission. We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things.” The jihadists rampaging in Syria and Iraq agree, which is why their goal is to restore the caliphate under which Islam dominated the region for centuries.

Cataloguing the failures of one president or administration is necessary, but it will not solve these larger problems. Only extraordinary political leadership and vision, and a mind-concentrating existential threat, can overcome those impediments and galvanize the citizens to pay the price and bear the burdens for ensuring our long-term security and national interests.

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  • Hank Rearden

    Converting Islam to Western liberalism is a fool’s errand. Islam is a depraved philosophy which either has to be destroyed by force or has to be let to burn itself out.

    The only other solution is imperialism – administering the culture ourselves. Imperialism has gone out of style. So we better be careful what fights we interject ourselves into.

    I don’t buy this as a weakness of democracies. What we all smelled, yes, even with the Bush admin, was the smell of incompetence, of laziness, of a lack of intellectual sweat equity on the part of our leadership before it committed the country. The Bush admin was selling one-man-one-vote democracy in Iraq. But that was going to dispossess the Sunnis, the historical leadership of the society. What was our strategy to deal with that dilemma?

    • Thomas L. Stafford

      It was Barack’s war for three years. It was Barack’s failure to secure the agreements to keep the country secure. Therefore, it is Barack’s failure. Arming and training many members of ISIS to fight Assad in Syria was also bad karma. That sort of error has been repeated by many administration since WWII.

    • Americana

      These wars in the Middle East Americans should, by now, be convinced are “un-winnable” in the sense we’ve previously experienced wars. The character of these wars makes them perennial and un-winnable except by members of their own culture over the very long term. If we are present in a country for more than 5 years, should we truly award ourselves a political and sociological victory? Not in my book.

      Pres. Bush and Pres. Obama were both following the same vain hope in the Middle East — that the moderate Muslims wishing for democracy and secularism would have the guts and the cohesiveness to mount an effective military and political defense against whatever militant Muslim sectarianism arose after their respective dictators had been deposed. Who’dve guessed that the demonstrations that boded democracy was in the offing in these Muslim countries would devolve so quickly into the political aims of moderate Muslims being overwhelmed by the sectarian Islamists? Actually, it’s pretty easy to foretell this collapse. Countries can’t sustain widespread insurrection like what these Islamists are willing to inflict and maintain civic life. Not w/the population density of today’s Iraq and Libya…

      • zoomie

        re: a fools errand, a moderate muslime is pleased when a radical muslime kills you.

      • Hank Rearden

        Very well said.

        There is an inherent contradiction in coming in to one of these countries as the “good guys.” As you say, countries can’t sustain what these Islamists are willing to inflict.

        What is the conclusion to that? You need a strongman at the top who is willing to be as, or even more, savage than the Islamists. Does the name Saddam Hussein ring a bell?

        I am not advocating for him because the reports we have is that Iraq was truly a hideous place by the time we toppled Saddam. But that is the Catch-22: the “good guys” are not strong enough to keep the bad guys in their place.

        So it is a strongman or the Islamists.

        Basically the problem is that it is a degenerate, depraved culture. By their fruits ye shall know them.

  • guest

    It’s only a lack of imagination.

    These people are so backward, that they must first be made more powerful, before they are destroyed.

    Just be patient.

    We’ve gone from, democracy, whiskey, sexy; to whiskey, gasoline, matches!

    Just watch.

  • Jason P

    There are two articles here. One is the impossible dream of bringing a liberal democracy to the Islamic world. This is the latter part of the article. It should have been written in 2003. A few of us were talking about it back then. Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer dissented from such nations-building. This, of course, was Bush’s failed policy. The resources to make this policy work in Iraq are staggering. And that’s only one Islamic nation. Look at what is happening in Syria. And you have a whole Islamic world to reform!

    If that’s the case what is Obama’s failure? That he didn’t delay the disintegration in Iraq? That he didn’t go into Syria and try to nations-build there? No doubt Obama could have given the failed experiment in Iraq more time but as you note the cultural change required is enormous. Buying time and even a launching ground for change in Syria and Iran would require a vision that even Bush didn’t possess.

    It’s the second article, on the hopelessness of Islamic culture, that is the important one. Yes, Islam is headed for a religious war, a Thirty Years War. Why do we want to be in the middle of this? I asked this back in 2004 but neither side was facing reality. Finally we are starting to face this reality but we get side tracked by partisan politics. Forget about Obama and Bush. It is not about us. Syria (we didn’t invade) and Iraq (we did invade) are both disintegration. The problem is Islam.

    • 1Indioviejo1

      I am glad that you say exactly what I see in this article, with an enfasis in the “hopelessness of Islamic Culture”. The whole of Islam is nothing more than a totalitarian Ideology masked in a religious cult. There is ample evidence since antiquity of this fact, enumerated by Popes in the Middle Ages, statesmen, and as recently as Winston Churchill’s comment during the Bristish intervention in Afghanistan. Why have we failed to learn from History? We need leaders who know all about Islam and are willing to do the heavy lifting, otherwise we are lost. Thank you.

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  • zoomie

    the good news, that so far i don’t see any reporting or anyone writing about is – now, no one gives a damn about their hearts or minds NO ONE. this will be very liberating for the US when ( not if ) the time comes.

  • kevinstroup

    Why did we succeed in changing Germany and Japan after WW2, but failed in Vietnam and Iraq? Willpower. The willingness to kill millions to achieve our objective. We just do not want to do the dirty work that true victory requires. You just do not hear from the Nazis anymore. They are all dead.

    • Americana

      That is simply not so, Kevin. We let many, many hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of the intermediate and lower-ranking Nazis go free w/nary more than a slap on the wrist. Why? Because we couldn’t have managed the prison situation if we’d tried to keep them all captive or taken them all through military courts. We lost in Vietnam because the Vietnamese ultimately wanted a unified Vietnam even if many didn’t want unification under a Communist regime.

      We achieved abject surrender in Japan and Germany out of sheer willingness to blast every essential piece of defended infrastructure to bits over years of warfare. When we closed in on the head of the Nazi snake and those in the snake pit committed suicide there was effectively no one left who was insane enough to wish to continue a vain war. The Japanese had it even worse w/what we inflicted on them. There was no way they would have continued the fight when they had no idea how many more nuclear weapons we had. These wars or this FIGHT in the Middle East if you prefer to see it as one vast sea of intertwined Islamism is simply an entirely different scenario in terms of complexity. There are few if any identifiable figures that, if taken out, will stop these fighters in their tracks.

    • Americana

      We succeeded in building up Germany and Japan once again as social democracies only after inflicting extreme destruction upon each country, for which we paid an immensely high price in reparations under the Marshall Plan. We freed many, many hundreds of thousands of intermediate and lower-ranking Nazis without much hesitation in order to get Germany going again. Same for Japan. The only true victory to be had lies within the grasp of the secularist Iraqis and Libyans and Egyptians w/democratic leanings. It’s up to the secularists to defeat the jihadists.

      Willpower doesn’t even enter into the subsuming of a country that doesn’t wish to be subsumed by another national identity. Neither Vietnam nor Iraq wished to be subservient to American political concerns and interests in their respective regions. Sadly for both, they didn’t see the United States as the lesser of two evils.

  • Giles Blyzzard

    I agree with what you say about democracies must come from within. We will not be able to instill a democracy in an Islamic state, which, unfortunately, is what President Bush tried to do. By guaranteeing Iraq an islamic constitution he was doomed to failure. Islam is totally incompatible with freedom.

    By invading and conquering Iraq President Bush turned an enemy of Iran, the Middle East’s biggest threat to Israel and the US, into an ally of Iran. That was foolish.

    Obama is so totally clueless that he is both for and against the Sunnis, depending on whether they are in Syria or Iraq.

    So frankly, I think that both Presidents are responsible for today’s mess. Since ISIL has stated that they want to bring back the caliphate and create a country from which they can attack the US it is crucial that we defeat them. When people say they are going to attack the US we have every right to take them at their word and to preempt them. We should do what it takes to decimate them.

    Then we should start fighting the war at home. Islam is at war with the rest of the world. ISIL, the jihadists, the beheaders are the true muslims, for they are the ones who are doing exactly what Muhammad did when he was alive, Murdering, pillaging, plundering and raping, including the raping of children. This is what Mohammad did. It is in the islamic holy books and they are proud of it.

    So we need to take of the PC shackles and tell it like it is. We need to ban islam from the US since it is the exact opposite of liberty. It demands an islamic government and therefore violates the establishment clause of the first amendment. We need to deport all muslims in the US who are not citizens. We need to ban immigration from all muslim countries and we need to close down all mosques that are preaching jihad, which I understand is about 80% of them. It will do us no good to defeat ISIL or Al Qaeda in the Middle East if we are at same time inviting muslims to the US. Anywhere that muslims make up a significant percentage of the population they cause trouble. Myanmar, Thailand, France, UK, Sweden, Denmark. The list is endless and they have no intention of becoming Americans if they move here. They intend to turn the US into an islamic state. Let’s stop the nonsense and start dealing with the invasion now.

  • expertcritic53

    Having been proven wrong in their “nation-building” crusade in Iraq, the neocons, like the author of this article, are now saying that the way to “win” these imperialist wars of aggression in the Middle East is to permanently occupy the subjugated territories. Withdrawal of American occupation forces will always be too early for them. Yet where will the trillions come from to accomplish this never-ending mission? They fail to acknowledge that there are insufficient means to achieve their (perverse) ends.

    • UCSPanther

      You want Islamic Imperialism instead?

      You wanted it, now you got it. Nothing more to complain about…

      • Americana

        Islamic imperialism has never extended past a certain geographic point in the world. Even the Muslims recognize that though the extremists and the big-mouthed imams talk a good line. This whole furor over extremist Islam is being whipped up so that the West continues to engage in the Middle East in the way that’s desired by the religious zealots in the crowd. We’re going to have to look beyond what’s currently being sold to the world as its imminent future and recognize what the future is in reality.

  • Americana

    Not so. As it is, we’re insulting all Muslims w/films like this and we’ll shortly be paying the price for these real fools:

  • Jeff Ludwig

    This is a very mature article. Dr. Thornton’s analysis should make us all think long and hard about the insoluble problem of transplanting participatory government into any country but especially Islamic countries.

  • Jeff Ludwig

    I am copying in a comment which I included after reading Caroline Glick’s article as I think it’s relevant here:

    It’s an interesting article adding yet another level of complexity to our understanding of the complex (meaning “riddled with enmity and animosity”) of the Islamic world. We have the Baath’ist types who are Islamic socialists, the
    Shi’ite imperialists led by Iran, those seeking restoration of the Caliphate,
    we have those who want a Sharia based nationalism, and now we have Turkey
    seeking to restore Turkish hegemony via a neo-Ottoman political fantasy. The
    vision of a Westernized, democratic Turkey has been set aside and is not being
    put forward by any faction (except small and rarely heard factions). We also
    have Muslim nationalists with a definite militaristic bent as in Egypt and
    Pakistan. They are the “moderates.” This means that “moderate”
    in the Islamic world means “military-backed dictatorships.” When I
    was a kid, this latter type of government was mocked by me and my friends as
    having the hallmarks of a typical “banana republic.” In more
    sophisticated language, said governments are one and all based on repression,
    exploitation, ignorance, and dehumanization of the population.There is no
    movement for democracy. Democracy is the imposed value of the U.S. as though democracy can be produced synthetically in a constitutional laboratory in the U.S. or even in the United Nations and then, like an artificial heart, be
    transplanted into the body politic of various Islamic nations. Let’s then look
    at the Islamic world through non-physiological eyes. Yes, their brains have
    neurons and synapses like our brains. The hearts have systolic and diastolic
    pressure like our hearts. Their livers secrete bile like our livers. Yet, they
    are fundamentally different from us, and need to be seen as different, so we
    can reject them.

  • Ellman48

    “And our allies Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel all will to various
    degrees find their own security and interests impacted by this
    administration’s criminal foreign policy negligence.”

    The world is a far more dangerous place since Obama entered the White House and there won’t be any improvement in the next 2 years. Whatever he intended to accomplish with his infamous “Apology Tour” to Egypt in 2009, what has actually happened to Egypt since is catastrophic. The same thing is true for all of his promises, initiatives, policies: disasters all!

  • knowshistory

    treasonous, anti-American, and disgusting as the muslim in chief is, the fact remains that the takeover of Iraq by Islamic jihadis was inevitable. this one is not our traitor in chief’s doing, much as he may have desired it. our own invasion by foreigners, particularly muslim foreigners, on the other hand, certainly IS the fault of our muslim in chief, and we should depose him for it. unfortunately, we wont.

  • kevinstroup

    I disagree. We did kill off all the hardcore members. In addition, the remnants had lost all passion for the ideology when they saw what a total failure it was and how 8 million Germans were dead from it. It still boils down to: are you willing to kill until they stop inflicting violence upon you. Even if it means genocide to the enemy. We do not have that will anymore. We are too eaten up with PC and this Multiculturalism crap. But yes, you can defeat even the most harcore ideologies if you are willing to go to the utmost limit.

  • Rabbit 62

    yeah, if Iraq could start fighting for its own country, that would be great

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