We did create a monster. We got rid of the Sunni despot Saddam Hussein, claiming he was in cahoots with al-Qaeda, even if al-Qaeda had been saying for years that they hated Saddam Hussein. Sure, he was a Sunni like them, but he was a secular Sunni. He wore western suits. He lived a lavish lifestyle. He never seemed to mention Allah. He wasn’t seventh-century austere. He wasn’t serious. They had no problem with America spending its blood and treasure, and ruining its reputation around the world, to get rid of that guy. And they could wait. America got rid of the Sunni fool for them.
They shouldn’t have wished for that. It was inevitable that Iraq would end up with that Maliki fellow – a Shiite strongman who marginalized and humiliated every Sunni in Iraq, just as Saddam Hussein had marginalized and humiliated every Shiite in sight for decades. The Sunnis were in trouble in Iraq this time, not the Shiites, and the sectarian civil war continued – with a new group, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The local Sunnis got organized.
Our famous “surge” was supposed to end that sectarian civil war – we bribed the Sunni militias at the time to fight the new al-Qaeda in Iraq, their Sunni brothers, and told them that any new Shiite leader, like Maliki, would promise to be nice to Sunnis, because we’d tell him to. Cool, but that wasn’t going to happen. Iraq would never be a whole nation of equals – there was too much bad blood. It’s no wonder Sunnis in Iraq now seem okay with ISIS at times. The ISIS crowd may be awful, but they’re better than that Shiite crowd in Baghdad, and at least they’re Sunnis. A little hope is better than none.
We set this up. We weren’t thinking. Early on, Paul Bremmer ordered the Iraq Army disbanded, and ordered that every member of Saddam’s Baath Party be purged from government. We took sides, leaving a lot of people out of work, and many of those were people with guns and military expertise. They were angry, with nothing to do but seethe, so it’s no surprise that Sunni generals from the former Iraq Army are now senior ISIS commanders, and many of the Sunni Baathists who lost everything are its foot soldiers. Paul Bremmer didn’t create ISIS, but he helped staff it. These guys want their old country back, or a new country where the old one was, but a Sunni caliphate this time.
There wasn’t much we could do. We pulled a few strings two years ago and got rid of Maliki, but the new guy, Haider al-Abadi, is little more than a more pleasant version of Maliki – a Shiite strongman who smiles and says he’s working on that be-nice-to-Sunnis thing. Now and then he makes the right sounds. That’s about it. When he sends his hapless army out to fight ISIS and they run away, he calls in the Shiite militias to get the job done. They are freelancers and are mostly aligned with Iran, our bitter enemy who wants to rid the region of the Sunni bad guys as much as we do. Some Iranian generals show up to help out now and then too. We pretend they’re not there.
These things happen. We did make a few mistakes in Iraq, but like Iran, we’ve always been fighting those deadly Sunni madmen, first al-Qaeda and then ISIS. They’re out to get us, but then our long-time ally in the region has always been Saudi Arabia. That’s a Sunni nation with Sharia Law and all that – they do behead folks and stone others to death, and that’s where women are not allowed to drive or be seen in public without their husband or a male guardian from the family. Saudi Arabia is an odd place, and then there’s that Wahhabi stuff – and a lot of private Saudi donations have always funded al-Qaeda – and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia – and Osama bin Laden is from a prominent Saudi family.
Is Saudi Arabia out to get us? No, not at all – this is all about the oil. But those Iraqi Shiite militias really hate Sunnis and have been known to kill every one of them on sight – not just those ISIS folks – which pisses off the Saudis and doesn’t move Iraq any closer to being a unified country where everyone gets along. Now were helping Saudi Arabia fight the Iranian-backed rebels who took over Yemen – siding with the Sunnis against the Shiites there – the opposite of what we did in Iraq. That should help, but we’re also negotiating with Shiite Iran on their nuclear program, not bombing them to end that program once and for all, which worries the Saudis a lot. Whose side are we on?
Even that young woman in Reno wanted to know:
“Your brother created ISIS,” the young woman told Jeb Bush. And with that, Ivy Ziedrich, a 19-year-old college student, created the kind of confrontational moment here on Wednesday morning that presidential candidates dread. …
She had heard Mr. Bush argue, a few moments before, that America’s retreat from the Middle East under President Obama had contributed to the growing power of the Islamic State. She told the former governor that he was wrong, and made the case that blame lay with the decision by the administration of his brother George W. Bush to disband the Iraqi Army.
“It was when 30,000 individuals who were part of the Iraqi military were forced out – they had no employment, they had no income, and they were left with access to all of the same arms and weapons,” Ms. Ziedrich said.
She added: “Your brother created ISIS.”
Jeb was stuck. He decided to say Iraq had been just fine in his brother’s last year in office – no problems at all – but Obama refused to force Malaki and the Iraq government to agree to us keeping ten thousand troops there to keep things perfect. He said that there was an agreement that Obama could have signed that would have kept our folks there, to keep things there just fine – but Obama, the fool, simply wouldn’t sign it. No one had ever heard of this agreement before – his brother had signed the actual formal agreement for our total withdrawal – but before anyone could ask him about this mysterious second agreement, or if he mesnt something else, Jeb was gone. He was having a bad week.
ISIS, however, isn’t gone. They were having a good week:
Thousands of Iraqi paramilitary fighters were mobilizing for a fresh assault on the western province of Anbar on Monday, one day after Islamic State militants overran the provincial capital, Ramadi, dealing a major strategic and symbolic blow to the U.S.-backed central government in Baghdad.
The U.S.-led coalition conducting an air war against Islamic State stepped up bombardment in the Ramadi area, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry said an imminent counteroffensive would eject the militants from the long-embattled city about 60 miles west of Baghdad, the capital.
“I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed,” Kerry said at a news conference in Seoul, referring to the fall of Ramadi.
The loss of the city also resonated with many American veterans of the Iraq war and their families, who came to know Anbar province as the perilous hub of the Sunni Arab insurgency against U.S. occupying forces. Americans suffered hundreds of casualties fighting in Ramadi and other stretches of the vast desert province, including the nearby city of Fallujah, which has also fallen back into militant hands.
Ramadi has proved to be an awkward setback for Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s government and its U.S. supporters, who have been declaring for months that Islamic State has been on the run. The militant advance in Ramadi seemed to suggest a less upbeat reality.
That’s putting it mildly:
The widely disseminated images of Iraqi forces in rapid retreat from Ramadi in U.S.-made Humvees and of militants celebrating their triumph were reminiscent of images that emerged last year, when Islamic State fighters overran broad parts of northern and western Iraq, stunning the world.
Once again, reports indicated that extremists had seized caches of weapons and ammunition left behind by fleeing Iraqi forces and had begun executions of captured government loyalists. Officials said they feared a bloodbath of retribution had begun.
Abadi then ordered his freelancers, the Iran-backed independent Shiite Iraqi militias, to prepare to go into Anbar. His army, that we had tried to whip into shape for years, just couldn’t cut it, but they won’t be greeted with glee:
After its victory in Ramadi, Islamic State also released pictures of jubilant fighters handing out candy to children. A series of photos distributed on the Web purported to show inmates, presumably jailed militants, being released from a prison in Ramadi. The images show the liberated captives embracing fighters after the gunmen shot the locks off the prison doors.
We’re back where we started:
Many Iraqi Sunnis continue to chafe under the rule of a Shiite-dominated government, viewing Sunni militants as a preferable alternative despite Islamic State’s harsh rule.
“It is only the Sunnis who can truly defeat ISIS, and there needs to be a strategy that puts them as the center of gravity in the fight,” said Emma Sky, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, using a common acronym for the extremist group.
“They will turn against ISIS when they see it cannot win, that there are better alternatives,” said Sky, the author of “The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq.”
The Iraqi government has attempted to recruit Sunni fighters to its ranks, boasting of the participation of Sunni tribal volunteers in the campaign against Islamic State. But, as Baghdad prepares a counteroffensive in Anbar, the government is again turning to Shiite militias, many backed by Shiite Iran.
The local Sunnis are simply out of luck:
The fighting in Ramadi has displaced thousands of residents, according to Anbar officials, who said that many are barred from entering Baghdad as well as the Shiite-dominated provinces to the south because they are suspected of collaborating with Islamic State.
Sunnis are not welcome in the rest of Iraq – they’re probably all in cahoots with ISIS – or might be – so we’re left with this:
The U.S.-led coalition said in a statement Monday that it conducted eight strikes on Ramadi early Sunday against Islamic State positions. Nevertheless, video released later by the pro-Islamic State Aamaq News Agency depicted militants leisurely making their way among the charred hulks of destroyed armor in an abandoned thoroughfare of Ramadi before unfurling the group’s black-and-white flag and hanging it on a street sign.
We lost Ramadi. We may have lost Iraq, if there ever was such a place. Maybe we imagined a real country where folks got along just fine. All we had to do is remove Saddam Hussein and there it would be. What were we thinking? As each of the Republican candidates tries to say that our Iraq war was a mistake – if we knew now what we didn’t know then, that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, we wouldn’t have gone in, but we didn’t know that then – each misses the point. We went in. Now what?
That would be this:
The United States signaled no intent to shift its strategy in Iraq’s war on Monday, even as the fall of the city of Ramadi to Islamic State called into question the relative strength of Iraq’s army after months of U.S.-led advising and air strikes. … The U.S. government expressed confidence that Iraqi forces, with U.S.-led coalition support, would eventually retake Ramadi, and that the American strategy in Iraq that keeps U.S. forces off the battlefield was still sound.
“There’s no denying that this is indeed a setback, but there’s also no denying that we’ll help the Iraqis take back Ramadi,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters who were traveling with President Barack Obama.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Colonel Steve Warren urged reporters to not “read too much” into the setback in Ramadi.
“We will retake it in the same way that we are slowly but surely retaking other parts of Iraq, and that is with Iraqi ground forces and coalition air power,” Warren said.
But it won’t be war:
Whether President Barack Obama might be considering further steps to confront Islamic State militants remained unclear. Last week, the White House said it was rushing weapons and ammunition to Baghdad to help it confront the militants. But U.S. officials said Iraq had to “own” the fight, not the U.S. military.
The Obama administration was not reexamining its prohibition on deploying American ground combat forces in Iraq, something many of Obama’s supporters would see as a return to the war he promised to end in his 2008 election, officials said.
This is no longer our problem:
A civilian U.S. official told Reuters: “What we need is for everybody who is in Iraq to defend Iraq, and in the end, it’s got to be Iraqis.”
“Remember whose country it is and who’s got to take responsibility for it. It’s not the United States, in this case. It’s the Iraqis,” the official also said.
But they’d better behave:
The Pentagon said there was room for the Shi’ite paramilitaries in the fight, “as long as the militias are controlled by the central Iraqi government.”
David Lynch adds more detail:
“Our strategy is working,” said Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, who denied that Iraqi forces fled their positions as they did last year in the face of an Islamic State blitzkrieg in northern Iraq. The Islamic State “forces simply had the upper hand, and it was time for Iraqi forces to reposition,” he said.
That may not be so:
Continued administration assertions of strategic success risk the return of the Vietnam War-era “credibility gap,” according to some analysts.
“The administration is now trying, again and again, to spin its way to victory,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It isn’t working.”
The lack of combat success is reflected in perceptions among the U.S. public. In a New York Times-CBS News poll, 64 percent of respondents said the fight against Islamic State is going “somewhat” or “very” badly. The survey of 1,027 adults was conducted from April 30 to May 3.
“This is a major setback, both for the Iraqi government and the U.S.,” retired Army General David Barno, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said of Ramadi’s capture. “It calls into question whether the Iraqi security forces can fight effectively.”
In Washington, retired military officers and other analysts said the U.S. needs to reconsider its approach to the conflict. …
“Show me some success,” said Michael Barbero, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who led the training of Iraqi forces during one of his three combat tours in Iraq. “None of it is working. It should be a wake-up call.”
And there’s this:
“There is a political agenda behind the prime minister’s decision to send the militias,” said Ahmed al-Misari, a Sunni lawmaker who spoke from Baghdad by phone, adding that he feared a repeat of sectarian killings seen in other areas where the militias have fought.
At stake could be Iraq’s integrity as a single state. As militant attacks mounted in recent weeks, representatives of Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish communities complained that the Shiite-dominated central government has been slow to provide them with arms and ammunition.
“The Anbar officials and tribal leaders have been begging the defense minister to send the Iraqi government forces to Anbar and to the tribal fighters weapons and ammunition so they can resist the aggressive attacks carried out” by Islamic State, Nahida al-Dayni, a Sunni lawmaker, said by phone. “The response was always weak.”
Hey, they’re only Sunnis, but here this was a big deal:
Republicans were quick to assail the president’s approach. Arizona Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Ramadi’s loss “huge” and said more American ground troops would be needed to turn the tide.
On the campaign trail in New Hampshire on Monday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, an expected Republican presidential candidate, complained that “right now our piecemeal strategy to deal with ISIS doesn’t inspire confidence.”
Frida Ghitis adds this:
Ramadi lies only 70 miles west of Baghdad, putting ISIS ever closer to the capital. Simply put, if Baghdad falls, we can say goodbye to Iraq as we know it – the country will break into a Sunni state, controlled by ISIS, at least initially, a Shiite state, loyal to Iran, and a Kurdish state in the north.
So, what to do? Unfortunately, the 2016 candidates have little to say on this issue right now.
In February, Hillary Clinton described what is essentially Obama’s strategy: using U.S. air power to complement soldiers from the region, particularly Iraq, to attack ISIS.
Republicans, meanwhile, mostly vow to be “decisive.” Jeb Bush vows “Greater global engagement…” and a strategy that would downplay diplomacy and aim to “take them out.” Scott Walker embarrassed himself with his analogy that he was able to crush Wisconsin’s unions, so therefore he can handle challenges like ISIS.
And while Marco Rubio did offer a somewhat more nuanced approach, saying the United States should provide air support for a military ground force made up of Sunni fighters from regional governments, he has also come in for criticism for his response to the question of whether the U.S. invasion was a mistake.
That makes this obvious:
The candidates will have to do better than this, because if President Obama’s current strategy does not start producing results soon, the ISIS challenge will take center stage in foreign policy debates, and candidates will have to put together much more detailed and coherent proposals for tackling the issue. It will not be enough for Hillary Clinton, for example, to suggest we might not be in this place if the President had listened to her proposals as secretary of state to lend more muscular support to Syrian rebels.
But an effective, comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS and save Iraq will not be easy to put together. For a start, it will require tackling the group in both Syria and Iraq. It will also require daring to upset the Iranians, whose allied militias have become a major arm against ISIS on Iraqi soil. In addition, it will mean pressuring the Iraqi government to empower Sunni tribal fighters, as the Sunni Awakening groups did. And finally, it will require working much faster to create a viable alternative to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, because today the only options there right now are the vicious dictatorship that is in place, or bloodthirsty Islamist militias – terrible choices all.
How the hell did we get into this? The question posed in a New York Time forum is this:
Was Iraq a unique foreign policy disaster caused by bad intelligence or is it a warning about aggressive military action and “muscular” foreign policy that’s still being advocated in places like Iran?
The responses so far:
Stephen M. Walt, Harvard University – Preventive War Worsens Problems Diplomacy Can Solve – “Military attacks do not bring about stable nations. They engender hatred and unintended consequences like ISIS.”
Danielle Pletka, American Enterprise Institute – Intervention Requires Knowing How to Finish the Job – “The American military’s job is to deter, and when that fails, to defeat an enemy, plain and simple. And where we fail, it is because we have no post-military plan.”
Emma Sky, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale – “Tactics Without Strategy Is the Noise Before Defeat” – “The U.S. needs to be more realistic in its goals and assumptions, rather than seeing ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.'”
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution – Not Intervening Can Be as Great a Risk as Intervening – “It is possible to learn the wrong lessons from the wrong war.”
Haleh Esfandiari, Woodrow Wilson International Center – No Simple Answers to Questions about U.S. Leadership – “American ability to impose its will even on small states is limited. With tight budgets, the means for interventionism are lacking.”
Those are worth a read, but Matt Taibbi has a unique response:
It was obvious even back then, to anyone who made the faintest effort to look at the situation honestly, that the invasion was doomed, wrong, and a joke.
Do people not remember this stuff? George Bush got on television on October 7th, 2002 and told the entire country that Saddam Hussein was thinking of using “unmanned aerial vehicles” for “missions targeting the United States.”
Only a handful of news outlets at the time, most of them tiny Internet sites, bothered to point out that such “UAVs” had a range of about 300 miles, while Iraq was 6,000 miles from New York.
What was the plan – Iraqi frogmen swimming poison-filled drones onto Block Island?
The Iraq invasion was always an insane exercise in brainless jingoism that could only be intellectually justified after accepting a series of ludicrous suppositions.
First you had to accept a fictional implied connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. Then you had to buy that this heavily-sanctioned secular dictator (and confirmed enemy of Islamic radicals) would be a likely sponsor of radical Islamic terror. Then after that you had to accept that Saddam even had the capability of supplying terrorists with weapons that could hurt us (the Bush administration’s analysts famously squinted so hard their faces turned inside out trying to see that one).
And then, after all that, you still had to buy that all of these factors together added up to a threat so imminent that it justified the immediate mass sacrifice of American and Iraqi lives.
It was absurd, a whole bunch of maybes piled on top of a perhaps and a theoretically possible or two.
And that got us to where we are now. And where are we? Who knows anymore?