America is a nation with a famously short attention span. It also has trouble remembering its history, even when history is dumbed down to “stuff that happened 10 or 12 years ago.”
But the 24-hour news monster must always chase the shiniest new thing. So some of the geniuses behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq have been weighing in on the current crisis in Iraq.
Appearing on MSNBC Tuesday morning was Paul Wolfowitz, who as deputy defense secretary in 2001 was generally credited with the idea of invading Iraq in response to the 9/11 attacks that Iraq had nothing to do with. He’s all for more intervention now, too.
At the Weekly Standard, Frederick Kagan and William Kristol, who advocated the 2003 invasion, want to send U.S. ground troops back in. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are probably in a green room somewhere.
Too many people who should know better want President Barack Obama to do something — anything, as long as long as the military is involved — to counter the latest outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq.
The president should do no such thing. Reinforcing the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is fine, but the situation in Iraq is only the latest manifestation of a 1,300-year old conflict. This is a time for patience, restraint, diplomacy and humility: We can’t fix this.
For sure, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or al-Sham or the Levant) — which is what these Sunni jihadists call themselves — are an evil lot: Torture and mass executions for what are essentially minor religious differences.
Iraq hasn’t seen this sort of thing in, oh, seven years, unless you count the 800 people who disappeared a year ago under the benevolent rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Before that, you have to go back 13 or 14 whole years ago, when Saddam Hussein was in charge. Which is when we blundered in.
In 2006, when American boots had been on the ground in Iraq for about three years, Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post wrote a book with the apt title of “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.” Here’s how that book began:
“President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 ultimately may come to be seen as one of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy. The consequences won’t be clear for decades.”
What’s happening now are some of those consequences. There are more to come, but to predict what they will be, and act on those predictions, would be folly. To say we must deny the jihadists a sanctuary to plan further attacks on the United States ignores the fact they’ve already got sanctuaries in Syria, Yemen and Pakistan.
There will be a sorting-out in Iraq; the Iraqi military has $20 billion worth of U.S. arms at its disposal. If it can’t use them effectively against a force reckoned at no more than 10,000, it’s beyond help.
There’s no doubt that Mr. Bush ordered the invasion with the best of intentions and the worst of planning. The United States spent what eventually will be $3 trillion (when the last of the 22,500 wounded receive their final care) and nearly 4,500 lives to replace a minority Sunni Muslim dictatorship with a Shiite Muslim faux-democracy.
The United States spent billions of dollars training the Iraqi army. We surged 30,000 troops in 2007 to buy enough time for Iraq to create a stable political structure that could carry on without us. In 2011, Mr. Obama pulled out the last of the combat troops. Mr. Maliki, unrestrained, abandoned the notion of power-sharing with the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Would the residual presence of U.S. troops and air power have kept a lid on? Probably. But it costs about $1 million a year to keep each soldier deployed. Do the math on 20,000 troops times an indefinite number of years.
Mr. Obama inherited and carried on Mr. Bush’s flawed “We’ll stand down when they stand up” approach to governance in Iraq. The flaw was thinking that a Shia-dominated government would forget payback. It further assumed that Iraqi security forces could be nonsectarian. It assumed that well-armed militias representing dozens of subsects of belief would lay down their arms.
Iraq, as then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., argued in 2006, was always going to resist a strong coalition government. The majority Shia, who suffered grievously under Saddam, wanted payback. They wanted no part of sharing power with the Sunni minority, much less the non-Arab Kurdish people in northern Iraq.
Mr. Biden proposed a kind of federal system of three self-governing states sharing a central government. It may eventually come to something like that, but the flaw there is that there are oil fields in southern Iraq, where the Shia have their base, and in Kurdish northern Iraq. The Sunni base in western Iraq is desolate.
Still, this is less about resources than it is about religion, or at least the religious excuse for abusing other people. Had the prophet Muhammad made it clear who he wanted to succeed him — his father-in-law (one of them, anyway), Abu Bakr (Sunnis), or his cousin and son-in-law, Ali (Shia) — a lot of the world’s troubles could have been averted.
In 2003, the United States blithely injected itself into a 1,300-year old religious war. Now, balancing the interests of our Sunni allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and our newfound allies-of-convenience in Shiite Iran (patrons of Bashar Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon), we have to figure out how to put the lid back on.
The answer: slowly and carefully. If ever there was a time for Mr. Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” approach to foreign policy, this is it.