Melancholy Lessons from Iraq

The hard truths from Iraq that transcend administrations.

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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Tags: Al-Qaeda, Iraq, War, ISIS

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