You never know whether an Army is an Army until it’s under fire. We’re learning – not terribly surprisingly – that the Iraqi Army was not an army. Its soldiers appear to have ditched their uniforms and fled almost the moment they came under fire from an organized paramilitary. As one of my colleagues just noted, the commentary on what’s unfolding is remarkably shallow, even from some of the most knowledgable and insightful journalists in the field. The simple and fundamental fact is that this is the fallout of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Any analysis that doesn’t grapple with and accept that basic fact is just wrong and possibly dishonest to boot. It’s not about how President Obama organized the exit from Iraq, whether he did it well or poorly. And yet, President Bush isn’t president anymore. It’s not his problem. It’s President Obama’s problem. And he has to figure out – decide on – the least worst way to deal with what’s happening.
Historians and partisans can lay this on President Bush. And they should. But that doesn’t mean anything in the here and now or give you – or rather us and the President – any clear guide on how to proceed now.
This was always the folly of the ‘Hey, let’s get rid of the tyrant Saddam’ line of reasoning. He was brutal and awful. But he was a symptom rather than the cause of Iraq’s problems, a nation drawn on maps in London and Paris a century ago, corralling together not just different sects and nationalities but the cockpit where many if not all of the Middle East’s crossroads, invasion routes and contentions came together (see the Sykes-Picot Agreement and its elaborations for more). It was and is a pressure cooker that makes for a cockpit of instability and violence, one that may only be able to be held together by ironfisted rule.
None of this is to justify Saddam’s barbarities. It is simply to note that his existence was no accident.
Now we see a handful of grand trajectories colliding together.
The Syrian Civil War looks like something verging on permanence. We see what may be the beginning of an Alawi rump state in the northwest, possibly a Druze rump state in the southwest. More pressingly, ISIS is operating in Syria and Iraq and not just doing so for tactical reasons but, for all its brutality, forcing the question of whether eastern Syria and northern Iraq should even be parts of different states. And any question about who and what ISIS is can be settled by remembering that they are the only major al Qaeda ‘affiliate’ booted from the organization for being too brutal and indiscriminate in the taking of innocent lives.
Looked at from a distance, or rather without the overlay of the current regional state system, it is not at all clear why this chunk of Syria and chunk of Iraq should be parts of different states. And given the current condition of state collapse in Syria and possibly in Iraq it is not clear they soon won’t be.
We can leave just noted in passing for the moment that this probably gives the Kurds their best opportunity in decades if not centuries to make a bid for statehood, given the situations unfolding simultaneously in Iraq and Syria – something that poses a severe threat to the state integrity not only of Iraq and Syrian but, more ominously, of Turkey as well.
A few immediate concerns must be noted. One driver of the current crisis is the Iraqi government’s tendency to operate as a Shiite ethnic government, cutting out the Sunni minority which, while small, has the historical experience of running the country. This is a major part of why people in Washington say al-Maliki has been such a disappointment. And they’re right, as far as it goes. But again, it is important to distinguish causes and effects, symptoms and underlying maladies.
It is notable that the Iraqi government now seems ready to fall back on the Shia militias and possibly the Kurdish peshmerga, who – especially the latter – have the cohesion, discipline and morale to put up a real fight. But again we have a signal of the underlying issue: Iraq is not a state. That is why it’s notional Army melted away so quickly. These militias are based largely on regional ethnic communities.
Finally, to America. I don’t know enough about the facts on the ground. But purely as a tactical matter, it seems hard to believe that the US could not seriously impede ISIS’s progress to Baghdad, perhaps cripple it if it’s leadership was foolhardy enough to face US airpower undefended on open ground. In cities this kind of exchange is brutal for the US. But when you are, if you are, talking about moving a paramilitary or quasi-army in force from city to city, that’s a case where the US has all the advantages. So in this very limited way, the US has some very good options. But we just spent years trying to get out of Iraq. Do we go back in, even from the relative safety of the skies?
Circling back, this is the upshot of the decision made in March 2003. There is no other realistic or honest way to understand it. How President Obama handled the departure is really largely irrelevant. To paraphrase the Emperor Tiberius (whose line was later picked in an apt but ugly rendering by Thomas Jefferson), when you’re holding a wolf by the ears, just how you choose to let go is largely beside the point. Late in the last decade we had a simple choice. Stay in the country basically forever and keep the lid more or less on the powder keg or leave and leave it untended – with all that implies. The American electorate didn’t want us to stay and so we left. Without the US to hold together the pieces we broke apart, a drive toward authoritarianism or fracture was close to inevitable. The outbreak of a shattering Civil War in Syria only upped the stakes, massively.