A dozen years ago, if anyone remembers, many were saying that George W. Bush was a shallow man with a chip on his shoulder, easily manipulated and not very bright. Others said he was bright enough – he just wasn’t curious about much of anything. He didn’t want to know what he didn’t know, but his defenders said that wasn’t smugness, it was moral certainty and an admirable steadfastness that would serve the nation well. This wasn’t a guy who would be whipped around, back and forth, by competing arguments from experts and eggheads – he was a rock who would trust his gut and do the right thing, and never change his mind, no matter what. Circumstances might change, but he wouldn’t be seduced by some fancy argument and change his mind. He had the right values, and if he wasn’t very bright – there was no getting around that – at least he was manly. Well, he was, for what that’s worth.
That seemed to be worth a lot. The standard line, on Fox News and on talk radio and in the Weekly Standard and National Review, was that this manliness mattered more than anything, and that dovetailed nicely with what soon became the main precept of neoconservative foreign policy – when we show weakness, of any kind, anywhere, others attack us. The corollary is obvious. When we show strength, even for no reason at all, they don’t. It’s that simple, and Dick Cheney must have explained this notion a thousand times in a thousand interviews, and one can imagine George Bush back at the White House nodding and taking notes, even if that notion led to the United States doing odd things no one expected of such a nice country. This lead to invading and occupying a middle eastern country that wasn’t much of a threat to us in any way, to torturing prisoners even if we learned nothing from them and even if they turned out to be the wrong people in the first place, to kidnapping foreign nationals and whisking them off to secret prisons never to be seen again, and to maintaining a prison at the far and ambiguous end of Cuba where we held folks we had grabbed one way or another, many we freely admitted had done nothing wrong, indefinitely.
This trashed our international reputation, but we didn’t seem to mind. There were things, these things, that we had to do to stay safe, and for a time everyone seemed to agree on that. Anyone who disagreed was siding with the terrorists. Every other nation and all the bad guys had to know that they don’t mess with us, ever, and the details of how they come to know that were of secondary concern, if they were of any concern at all. It was the manliness, the swagger, that kept America safe – don’t sweat the details – and Dick Cheney was the living embodiment of that.
He was cool. In fact, in early 2006 Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting buddy in the face – and it didn’t matter. These things happen among manly men. The nation shrugged. His hunting buddy publicly apologized to Cheney – he had accidently gotten in the way of Cheney’s awesome shot that was going to blast one of those tiny quail right out of the sky. That was what he should have said, and Cheney’s standing with the public didn’t suffer at all. In fact, the whole incident probably reinforced what he had been saying all along. Real Men, and the United States, do things, sometimes random dangerous things, things that others find appalling. So what? It’s for the best. Get out of the way.
That hunting incident might be considered emblematic of the Iraq War, the one that Obama early on had called the dumb war. What did he know? Sure, it turned out Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, but there’s context to consider. It’s complicated. In response to those September 11 attacks, we invaded and pretty much took over Afghanistan, to rid that place of the Taliban and that guy they’d hosted, Osama bin Laden, who had said he had been the one behind what happened. We took care of the Taliban, more or less, and nurtured a new if somewhat flaky government that would not let the Taliban run things again, hosting al-Qaeda again, but we didn’t get Osama bin Laden.
He’d slipped away, but by then we were off to Iraq anyway, because of those weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein had – which he didn’t have – and because Iraq was a state sponsor of terrorism – even if that was a matter of Saddam Hussein’s support for the PLO and other enemies of Israel. Everyone knew al-Qaeda had long despised Saddam Hussein for being too damned secular. George Bush was finally forced to admit that Saddam Hussein didn’t have anything at all to do with the September 11 attacks, but terrorism is terrorism, right? Dick Cheney kept saying that too.
Fine – taking care of Iraq would keep us safe, but that terrorism-talk wasn’t going to fly – the evidence was absent – so we shifted to talking about how the point of the Iraq War had always been to build a Jeffersonian secular democracy there, as an example to the region, to show everyone over there the virtues of the American Way. It had been a demonstration project all along. That was a new one, but we had been there for many years, and so many of our own had died or been horribly maimed in whatever it was we had been doing, it would be nice to think there had been a point to all of this. And heck, how hard could that be? All we had to do was tamp down the Sunni-Shiite civil war that had exploded once we had settled in and the “surge” would take care of that – thirty thousand additional troops to stop the internecine violence, to give both sides “breathing room” to work out their differences and form a sensible inclusive government.
That didn’t work. The Bush administration finally just set a firm date for us to leave, and carefully negotiated a status of forces agreement, to keep enough of our troops in Iraq to keep al-Qaeda types from setting up shop there – but the Malaki government refused to sign that agreement and told us to just go away. Bush and Cheney were gone by then and the Malaki government told Obama they just wouldn’t sign the Bush agreement – their own parliament would never ratify it – and we left. We really had no choice, because we foolishly had said they were now a sovereign nation – and now Iraq is a sovereign nation run by a Shiite strongman, Malaki, as opposed to a Sunni strongman, Saddam Hussein, and closely aligned with their two Shiite neighbors, Iran and Syria, our current nemesis-twins in the region.
We had made a mistake. We did the manly thing. We didn’t waver. We got nothing for it. We’re no safer now than when Saddam Hussein was boasting and bragging and waving a rifle over his head and half the Arab world was laughing at him. Yeah, we blasted that particular tiny little quail from the sky, but we sort of shot our hunting buddies in the face – no nation wants to hunt with us now. We’re too careless, and even the American people don’t want to go hunting now. John McCain and others may make the Cheney argument – that we need to show strength or we’ll all die, so we need to arm and help the Syrian rebels get rid of Assad, and we need to arm and help the Ukrainians toss the Russians out of Crimea, and we have to slap around some people in Libya, or North Korea, or somewhere else – but the American people want none of that. No one wants to get shot in the face during the process.
All that’s left to do is work on fixing the new and odd Iraq we created, but even that may not now be an option:
A resurgent Al Qaeda splinter group consolidated gains in one of Iraq’s largest cities Wednesday and pushed deeper into the heart of the country, threatening to create an extremist “proto-state” in the Middle East, something that U.S. forces fought for eight years to prevent.
The militants rolled past the major northern city of Mosul and into Tikrit, the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown, also seizing oil fields in Salahuddin province. In Mosul, gunmen looted the central bank of $420 million and took 48 employees of the Turkish Consulate hostage, including the mission chief.
Gains by the heavily armed fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, sent an estimated 500,000 people fleeing east. By late Tuesday, their armored vehicles had rolled into Baiji, halfway to Baghdad, seizing control of the country’s largest oil refinery after granting “safe passage” to Iraqi security forces in exchange for their weapons.
Retreating Iraqi troops left behind American Humvees and helicopters, which were seized by the invaders, according to images the militants posted on social media.
Our new and odd Iraq may be gone soon:
President Obama was briefed on the situation, as several administration officials in the State Department and the White House reached out to the Maliki government, tribal leaders and officials of the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, said a senior administration official who would not be named.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest described the security breakdown as “grave.”
Officials were hopeful that the fall of Mosul would galvanize the Iraqi government. The senior administration official described “quite a sense of panic” among Iraqis and a “widespread urgent concern and desire to beat this back.”
U.S. officials said they had already begun ramping up arms deliveries to Maliki’s government, but there was no indication that the administration intended to respond with American troops.
John McCain will no doubt call for sending all the troops back in, but that’s not going to happen. Our mistake is now worse than a mistake:
The capture of Mosul represents a major victory for the insurgents, said Paul Salem, a veteran analyst at the Middle East Institute.
“This is an order-of-magnitude conquest by ISIS of this very big and very important city,” Salem said of the militants’ takeover of the city of about 2 million. “With this victory you really have to consider ISIS a proto-state as it now includes major cities, major access to resources, with momentum on its side that will only attract more fighters.”
The U.S. mission in Iraq, which ended in 2011, failed to impress upon the Maliki government the importance of power-sharing, Salem said. The Kurds’ geographic concentration has allowed them autonomy, but the scattered Sunnis have been denied their place in the national economy and institutions.
“The hearts and minds battle is lost….”
Yes, it’s hopeless, but it’s all Obama’s fault, or at least Ed Morrissey hints at that:
We pulled out all of our forces three years ago when the Obama administration failed to negotiate for a residual force for this exact scenario. In order to land an effective fighting force to defend Baghdad and retake Mosul, we would need to commit tens of thousands of troops and a large amount of materiel in a big hurry. Logistically speaking, that would be a feat worthy of George S. Patton and the Battle of the Bulge in order for us to get to Baghdad before ISIS does, especially with Iraqi security forces collapsing.
Politically speaking, it’s a dead letter. Obama just coughed up five prizes to the Taliban in his haste to get the US out of Afghanistan. Does Iraq really expect Obama to restart the Iraq War all over again after spending his entire national political career speaking out against it?
Andrew Sullivan pushes back:
Let’s get a few things clear here. The American people – much more than Obama – wanted to get out of Iraq completely; and the Maliki government – much more than Obama – wanted the same. Since the failure of the surge to create anything like a multi-sectarian government, this unraveling was only a matter of time. I’m actually surprised it didn’t happen as we were pulling out, or a year ago. No doubt the Syrian implosion has had an impact. But this is Iraq: a country created to be divided, and requiring brutal authoritarianism to stay in one piece. The idea that the US can actually do anything about this is fantasy.
The editors at Bloomberg News don’t think so:
Much of what is happening in Iraq now is the fault of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has ruled Iraq in far too sectarian a fashion, alienating the very Sunni leaders who helped to subdue ISIS’s precursor in 2007. That complicates matters, and any deal to rescue him should include a binding commitment from him to bring Sunni leaders into the government: These leaders trust the U.S. more than any other player in Iraq.
U.S. involvement would also be needed to overcome the deep tensions and rivalries between the government in Baghdad on one side and the Kurds and Turks on the other. Crushing ISIS may be the one clear common interest they have, yet cooperation is unlikely without diplomatic grease from an outsider, and the U.S. is the only realistic candidate.
Ah, US involvement is the only thing that would fix this. That sounds familiar, and Kevin Drum thinks that sounds awful:
This is one of those Rorschach developments, where all of us are going to claim vindication for our previously-held points of view. The hawks will claim this is all the fault of President Obama, who was unable to negotiate a continuing presence of US troops after our withdrawal three years ago. Critics of the war will claim that this shows Iraq was never stable enough to defend regardless of the size of the residual American presence.
And sure enough, I’m going to play to type. I find it fantastical that anyone could read about what’s happening and continue to believe that a small US presence in Iraq could ever have been more than a Band-Aid. I mean, just read the report. Two divisions of Iraqi soldiers turned tail in the face of 800 insurgents. That’s what we got after a decade of American training. How can you possibly believe that another few years would have made more than a paper-thin difference? Like it or not, the plain fact is that Iraq is too fundamentally unstable to be rebuilt by American military force. We could put fingers in the dikes, but not much more.
It might be wise to resist that impulse:
If we committed US troops to every major trouble spot in the Mideast, we’d have troops in Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq – lots of troops. The hawks won’t admit this outright, but that’s what their rhetoric implies. They simply refuse to believe the obvious: that America doesn’t have that much leverage over what’s happening in the region. Small commitments of trainers and arms won’t make more than a speck of difference. Big commitments are unsustainable. And the US military still doesn’t know how to successfully fight a counterinsurgency. (That’s no knock on the Pentagon, really. No one else knows how to fight a counterinsurgency either.)
This is painfully hard for Americans to accept, but sometimes you can’t just send in the Marines. Iraq may not have been Vietnam 2.0, but there was certainly one similarity: military success against an insurgent force has a chance of succeeding only if we’re partnered with a stable, competent, popular, legitimate national government. We didn’t have that in Vietnam, and that made victory impossible. We don’t have it anywhere in the Mideast either. For better or worse, the opposing sides there are going to have to fight things out on their own. This isn’t cynicism or fatalism. It’s just reality.
Max Boot goes the other way:
Islamist militants are now in the process of establishing a fundamentalist caliphate that includes much of northern Syria and western and northern Iraq. And that in turn threatens the U.S. and our regional allies because this new Islamist state is certain to become a training ground for international jihadists who will then strike other countries–including possibly ours.
It is harder to imagine a bigger disaster for American foreign policy – or a more self-inflicted one. There was no compelling reason why the U.S. had to pull our troops out of Iraq; if President Obama had tried harder to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement, he probably could have succeeded. But his heart was in troop withdrawal, not in a long-term commitment.
An actual Middle East expert, Juan Cole, thinks this is nonsense:
Those who will say that the US should have left troops in Iraq do not say how that could have happened. The Iraqi parliament voted against it. There was never any prospect in 2011 of the vote going any other way. Because the US occupation of Iraq was horrible for Iraqis and they resented it. Should the Obama administration have reinvaded and treated the Iraqi parliament the way Gen. Bonaparte treated the French one?
I hasten to say that the difficulty Baghdad is having with keeping Mosul is also an indictment of the Saddam Hussein regime (1979-2003), which pioneered the tactic of sectarian rule, basing itself on a Sunni-heavy Baath Party in the center-north and largely neglecting or excluding the Shiite South. Now the Shiites have reversed that strategy, creating a Baghdad-Najaf-Basra base.
Obama didn’t make the mistake here. This was a long time coming, and our mistake was jumping into the middle of this in the first place, however manly that might have seemed, as a way to keep us safe, something any alpha-male would instinctively do without a second thought, or even a first one. Now that mistake is worse than a mistake. Slate’s Fred Kaplan notes that we now have a transnational Sunni army forming rapidly, to take over most of Iraq and Syria, a group that al-Qaeda disavowed as too radical even for them long ago, and we could end up with the very worst scenario:
The countries in the region have to form indigenous alliances to stave off these radical threats. The United States can help, but there is no way any American politician is sending back tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of troops: They didn’t compel or convince Maliki to adopt a smart policy before, and they wouldn’t be able to do so now.
But this could be yet another sign of a breakdown in the entire Middle East. The war in Syria, which can be seen as a proxy war between the region’s Sunnis and Shiites, is now expanding into Iraq. The violence will intensify, and the neighboring countries will be flooded with refugees (half a million have already fled Mosul), with few resources to house or feed them.
Depending on what happens in the next few weeks, or maybe even days, we may be witnessing the beginning of either a new political order in the region or a drastic surge in the geostrategic swamp and humanitarian disaster that have all too palpably come to define it.
Hey, don’t go quail hunting with Dick Cheney. That’s one way to look at this, but that’s only a metaphor. The consequences of what we did a decade ago are finally playing out. We have no choice but to live with those consequences, far less safe now than we were in the first place. Hell, we should have listened to the French way back when – don’t do this war thing with Iraq – but all those skinny little Frenchmen ever do is sit around and talk about things, like little girls, and then end up doing nothing. We had George Bush and Dick Cheney, crude and brutal – but manly, damn it.
Well, we learned our lesson and elected someone urbane and sophisticated, who probably thinks too much – now that it’s too late even for that.