Who lost Iraq? What we can do about it?

Special to Times of Oman

Eventually the question will be asked— "Who lost Iraq?" In a way it might be seen as an improper question to ask since it presumes that Iraq was the United States' to lose. The fact that it was not, however, doesn't absolve America of responsibility. It has badly bungled in Iraq from the beginning. The invasion was irresponsible, occupation and administration of the country were disastrous, and the US departure, though necessary, left too many critical issues unresolved. What should also be clear is that no one is blameless.  

The Iraq war was conceived in sin. It was based on the lies of the Bush administration, the most notorious of which were not about "weapons of mass destruction." More dangerous were the fabricated projections they presented about how: the war would last only a few weeks and our presence would end in six months; it would only cost one to two billion dollars; American soldiers would be greeted as "liberators" with flowers at their feet; and Iraq's new democracy would be "a beacon for the new Middle East."

By 2005-6, it was clear that the US was in a worse mess than people had ever imagined. The crimes of Abu Ghraib had shocked the world, laying waste to American honour, sectarian strife had devastated Iraqi society creating waves of refugees and internally displaced persons, and both Arab and American public opinion had decided that "enough was enough." Back then, the American debate was waged between two poles: one which called for US forces to double-down, and the other which envisioned an immediate withdrawal.

It was then that Congress commissioned the "Iraq Study Group", led by most senior US statesmen, to find a way forward. The ISG report was highly anticipated. When it was released, it was largely ignored. The Bush administration cherry-picked the parts it liked, ignoring recommendations it didn't like. The result was to consolidate Iraq's sectarian divide while reinforcing the country's corrupt sect-based leadership.

The date for withdrawal had been set by the SOFA, and the Iraqi government insisted that it be honoured. But the challenge facing the administration was not the date of leaving, but what it was to do before the date marking the end of the US military presence in Iraq.

One of the ISG recommendations that Bush had refused to implement was the establishment of a regional security framework. This required the participation of all the regional stakeholders: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, and Iran. While many of the participants might have objected, all had an interest in and a role to play in Iraq's stability. Moreover, many of these principals were already involved in Iraq, in ways designed to protect their own interests. The key reason behind convening them was that it would be better to have them sitting around a table working above board then to have them manipulating events under the table. This was not done, with neither Bush nor Obama accepting the challenge.

In a wide-ranging poll conducted in Iraq toward the end of 2011, the concerns of the Iraqi people were clear. They were deeply divided about the US presence and its withdrawal. The majority wanted the US out but were concerned that with the departure they would be vulnerable and at risk. Their biggest fears were that with the US departure their country would explode in civil war, would divide along sectarian lines.

There were early warnings of what was to come. Nevertheless, at the end of 2011, The United States left Iraq in the hands of a sectarian and increasingly autocratic government. In the absence of any regional security arrangement, the Maliki government became more closely allied with foreign interests, increasingly alienating a vast section of the Iraqis, setting the stage for where the country is today.

It is just plain wrong for hawkish critics of the Obama Administration to argue that "we never should have left Iraq." They conveniently forget that the US was obliged to do so by the Bush administration's negotiated SOFA. And it is equally wrong for doves to argue that Iraq is none of America's business. Whether we the Americans like it or not, we have become part of Iraq's history. Our war and occupation have created a responsibility. After all the lives lost and the treasure spent, we cannot simply abandon the country.

That said, the US should not commit force or political capital in support of the Maliki government. His sectarian policies are the reason why Iraq is imploding. The way forward is to implement the last piece of the ISG report and convene the regional powers in an effort to address both the situations in Iraq and Syria. Both have become connected— and not just because the ISIS has a base in both areas.

The President is right to insist that he will not commit to the use of force without a plan. But he should not hesitate to use force to back up a plan that will convene a conference that would invest regional powers in support of an effort that would bring an end to Iraq and Syria's long nightmares.

The author is the President of Arab American Institute. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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