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Iraq situation: Who is at fault?

By Dale R. Herspring

For one who has been inside the foreign policy bureaucracy, one of the more frustrating aspects of a situation like the current one in Iraq is the use of often silly talking points used by whomever is in power to explain why the current crisis is not the regime’s fault.  It is the fault of the previous administration, or the local authorities, or perhaps it is God’s fault.  The key factor is that the current administration in Washington’s perpetual claims that it is not at fault.

To the degree we can, let’s try to take an “objective” view of this issue. First, it is important to keep in mind that Iraq is an artificial state.  The boundaries have little to do with the Iraqi people, their ethnicity or religious beliefs.  It was the result of an agreement between colonial powers a century ago.  Britain, and the other great powers cared less about the concerns of the locals.  It was a contest to show how strong the European colonial powers were and how far they could push their fellow European powers.

OK, the reader may say, that is fine, but what relevance does that have today?  The answer is simple.  Two very different religious groups, the Sunni and Shia, who have very different interpretations of Islam have been forced to live in a common state — and in the process have fought for power and to the degree possible have attempted to force their view of Islam on the other side — by appointing only those who agree with them to high military and political positions

This kind of a situation would challenge even the most brilliant diplomat, if charged with finding a method of integrating the two sides.  Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.  The US decided to invade Iraq under the mistaken belief that it held “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”  In fact it did not, and for reasons of openness, permit me to note that I wrote a book blasting the Bush II regime for invading the country.  It was stupid and created far more problems that it solved.

In essence, the American invasion was heavy handed, with little understanding of the cultural and political issues the American Army would face.  I remember asking General Williams, who commanded a major unit invading the country, “what was your biggest mistake?”  His answer was very revealing, “Our biggest mistake was that we were culturally illiterate.  We had no idea that the simplest action on our part could be extremely insulting — for example, exposing the sole of our shoes.  Frankly, it was inexcusable.”  The point is that American cultural illiteracy unnecessarily alienated Iraqis.

This raises a question: Was the Bush administration guilty in this mess? Absolutely. The Democrats are right! 

The invasion of Iraq was unnecessary.  We would currently be far better off, if we have left Saddam Hussein in power.  Sure, human rights would have continued to   be violated — but is that any worse than what we are now facing in Iraq?

But what about the Obama Administration?  Let us be honest, when he took over, Obama faced what in American (un)diplomatic language is often referred to as a “dog breakfast.”  Iraq was a victory in military terms. Our military forces had successfully destroyed the Muslim extremists.  The country was peaceful and on the way toward economic and military recovery.  There was optimism.  Hopefully, the worst was behind the country. Perhaps the state, which had known nothing but ethnic and religious divisions could raise above the past.

One of the things that the US cannot do effectively, is to direct domestic leaders in foreign countries.  We have tried to do it, Vietnam brings back such memories.  But they have almost always failed.  This was the case in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has consistently refused to heed advice given him by the UN, the US and numerous other sources, that his primary task was to bring the country back together; to figure out a way to achieve reconciliation between Sunnis and Shias.  Instead of reconciliation, we have a prime minister who has repeatedly favored the Shias.  Sunnis have been shoved to the rear, denied key positions.

This brings us back to the Obama administration. 

The key factor is what did or does Obama plan to do to deal with Iraq? Unfortunately, Obama has behaved like the ostrich who sticks its head in the sand.  For three years he has ignored Iraq and its problems.  For example, we had the failure to reach a SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement).

That is not totally his fault; dealing with Maliki has given us a pain where a pill wouldn’t reach.  Nevertheless, given the weapons and equipment that we were leaving to the Iraqis, I suspect that a harder line from Washington might have succeeded in getting Baghdad to agree to a SOFA. 

In a larger sense, Obama’s problem was simple. He had pledged to get out of Iraq. I think most Americans shared that goal.  However, one cannot simply say “we are leaving” and expect the process to work. It may sound trite, but babysitting such a country is still necessary. Obama’s failure to keep his eye on Iraq and his failure to deal with the divisive problems that were popping up were fatal. The jihadists did not rise over night.  It was clear to our intelligence community that they were playing an increasingly important and dangerous role - but that was a message that the president did not want to hear.  Now we pay the price.

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