Iraq: The Risks
By Robin Wright
In 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell commissioned two of the State Department’s most respected diplomats to write a candid assessment of the risks if the United States invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The six-page memo, entitled “The Perfect Storm,” is still classified. Parts of it eventually leaked, however. Amid the enthusiasm to go to war, its warnings challenged conventional wisdom within the Bush Administration. It predicted that, at best, Saddam’s ouster would not magically transform Iraq, as one of the memo’s authors, Ryan Crocker, subsequently . At worst, the invasion might unleash a multitude of forces that the United States was not equipped to confront or contain. The memo proved prescient.
A different Administration now faces the uncertainties of another Iraq war. American public opinion seems to be shifting in support of military action. On the eve of President Obama’s speech to the nation, and on the anniversary week of the September 11th attacks, seventy-one per cent of Americans said they fear that Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or survey. A second poll, released today by the Washington -ABC, found that seven in ten Americans now favor a U.S. air campaign against the militants—up from forty-five per cent in June. (also called ), now has the means to attack inside the United States, according to a
The menace posed by in an enthusiastic call for immediate action. Yet the risks of another American intervention in Iraq, this country’s third war in a quarter century, also give serious pause. is undeniable, the danger of inaction great. “It is hard to overstate the threat that this organization poses,” Crocker, who served as Ambassador to Iraq from 2007 until 2009, wrote today in
For the United States, the best possible outcome would be for the militants to withdraw from their illusory state in Iraq to bases in Syria, where they might wither in the face of strengthened Syrian rebels; ideally, the rebels would also bring an end to the Assad regime in Damascus. Iraq and Syria, with their multicultural societies, would then have breathing room to incubate inclusive governments. That’s the goal, anyway.
The worst outcome would be another open-ended, treasury-sapping, coffin-producing, and increasingly unpopular war that fails to erase or resurrect Iraq. It might even, in time, become a symbolic graveyard of American greatness—as it was for the French and the British. The Middle East has a proven record of sucking us in and spitting us out.
The risks extend beyond Iraq as well. A broad alliance is the centerpiece of President Obama’s new strategy, and Secretary of State John Kerry departs today for Jordan and Saudi Arabia to beef up the ten-nation “core coalition” formed at the summit in Wales last week. “Almost every country on earth has a role to play,” Kerry said yesterday. Washington needs the Arab world to give the mission its imprimatur and defray costs, and support from Sunni leaders is critical in persuading Iraq’s Sunni tribes to turn against Sunni extremists in . But the Arabs may be skeptical, given the failure of the Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative brokered by Kerry and the fact that ’s well-intentioned intervention in North Africa three years ago has all but transformed Libya into a failed state.
These are just the obvious risks, apparent even in the early days of a war that the Administration has conceded may last years, into the next Presidency. Washington has pledged to defeat , or “drive it to the gates of hell,” in Vice-President Biden’s words. That inevitably means some sort of second phase in Syria. And, potentially, in Lebanon, where the movement also has new roots. Or even in Jordan: thousands of Jordanians are reportedly now fighting in Iraq as jihadists alongside , and Jordan’s monarchy, on the other side of an amorphous desert border, feels vulnerable.
In the past six decades, the United States has arguably won only one big war both militarily and politically. Operation Desert Storm, in 1990-91, forced Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait and restored the royal family. Yet the unintended consequences haunt us still. The presence of “infidel” forces based in neighboring Saudi Arabia helped convert Osama bin Laden from a de-facto ally into the leader of Al Qaeda.
In the intervening years, the barometer of “winning” has gradually changed. Paul Hughes, a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace and a former Army planning officer during Operation Desert Storm, told me this week, “The idea that we can stomp the bejesus out of a rival and put a bayonet to its throat does not define victory as it once did. The last person standing on the battlefield is no longer necessarily the winner.”
Success will depend foremost on the cohesion of a unity government of Iraq’s fractious politicos, the disparate Arabs and Kurds, and rival religious sects. That has been an unachievable goal since the second American intervention, in 2003, ousted Saddam. The political chasm doomed the otherwise successful American surge of troops in 2007, when the Shiite-dominated government failed to follow through in sharing power with the Sunni tribes that had ousted Al Qaeda.
Yesterday, more than four months after Iraq’s national elections, the country’s leaders finally formed a new government. Secretary of State John Kerry heralded it as a “major milestone,” with “the potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities for a strong Iraq.” He said that the United States now stands “shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqis.” President Obama called to congratulate the new Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, after his government was sworn in.
The process almost imploded, however, when disgruntled Kurds threatened a last-minute boycott over Baghdad’s failure, since January, to provide the Kurds with their agreed upon seventeen per cent of Iraq’s oil revenues, leaving northern Kurdistan unable to pay provincial salaries or its peshmerga fighters. The government is also short of the two positions most pivotal to national security, since the squabbling factions can’t agree on a minister for defense or for the interior.
During the Ottoman Empire, the land mass that is today’s Iraq was ruled in three distinct, or provinces, centered on Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. The primordial identities in those provinces—based on Shiite and Sunni religions as well as Arab or Kurdish ethnicity—still define Iraq. To accommodate the divisions, Iraq’s new government is bloated with three deputy prime ministers and three vice-presidents. (One of the vice-presidents is Nouri al-Maliki, whose autocratic rule over the past eight years produced the current crisis.) In a toxic climate, Prime Minister Abadi faces formidable challenges in trying to enact reforms, redistribute power, equitably share oil revenues—and prevent the government from fraying further.
The Administration’s strategy is premised in large part on government forces fighting on the ground, supported by foreign air power. But so far the Iraqi Army, which lost four divisions in the early days of the militants’ sweep across a third of the country’s landmass, has left most of the fighting to the Kurds’ peshmerga and to three Shiite militias that are loyal to their own leaders rather than to Baghdad.
The goal of a new intervention is to restore modern Iraq, carved out of the dying Ottoman Empire a century ago. But it also risks the reverse, accelerating Iraq’s breakup, especially without effective national-security forces to fight in its name or hold it together.
Last week, in a joint operation, the peshmerga and Shiite militias succeeded in liberating Amerli, a town of fifteen thousand, from Shiite militiamen were waving rifles at the peshmerga and warning that they were not welcome in the town. “We fought for three months here, and now we have to fight these bastards,” one of the peshmerga fighters told the . “If this continues, we’ll have another war.”. As victories go, it may have been a microcosm of what is to come. After the town was secured, the liberators went after each other. According to the Washington