When Mao’s People’s Liberation Army defeated Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist army in 1949, practically overnight China transmogrified from a staunch ally of the United States to a bitter adversary. In Washington a debate broke out. The question on their minds was “Who Lost China?” In Washington today, propelled by the blitzkrieg of the terrorist army of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham in Iraq, the World Series of Finger-Pointing has begun over “Who Lost Iraq?” As it turns out, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Fareed Zakaria identifies the primary culprit as Nouri al-Maliki:
The first answer to the question is: Nouri al-Maliki lost Iraq.
The prime minister and his ruling party have behaved like thugs, excluding the Sunnis from power, using the army, police forces and militias to terrorize their opponents. The insurgency the al-Maliki government faces today was utterly predictable because, in fact, it happened before. From 2003 onward, Iraq faced a Sunni insurgency that was finally tamped down by Gen. David Petraeus, who said explicitly at the time that the core element of his strategy was political, bringing Sunni tribes and militias into the fold. The surge’s success, he often noted, bought time for a real power-sharing deal in Iraq that would bring the Sunnis into the structure of the government.
That did not happen.
However, he gives both George W. Bush and Barack Obama a share of the blame:
If the Bush administration deserves a fair share of blame for “losing Iraq,” what about the Obama administration and its decision to withdraw American forces from the country by the end of 2011? I would have preferred to see a small American force in Iraq to try to prevent the country’s collapse.
But let’s remember why this force is not there. Prime Minister al-Maliki refused to provide the guarantees that every other country in the world that hosts U.S. forces offers. Some commentators have blamed the Obama administration for negotiating badly or halfheartedly and perhaps this is true.
David Ignatius, too, blames Maliki:
The stunning gains this week by Iraq’s Sunni insurgents carry a crucial political message: Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister of Iraq, is a polarizing sectarian politician who has lost the confidence of his army and nation. He cannot put a splintered Iraq together again, no matter how many weapons the Obama administration sends him.
Maliki’s failure has been increasingly obvious since the elections of 2010, when the Iraqi people in their wisdom elected a broader, less-sectarian coalition. But the Obama administration, bizarrely working in tandem with Iran, brokered a deal that allowed Maliki to continue and has worked with him as an ally against al-Qaeda. Maliki’s coalition triumphed in April’s elections, but the balloting was boycotted by Sunnis.
Given Maliki’s sectarian and authoritarian style, a growing number of Iraq experts are questioning why the Obama administration continues to provide him billions in military aid — and is said to be weighing his plea for lethal Predator drones. The skeptics include some who were once among Maliki’s champions.
As you might expect, the editors of the Wall Street Journal blame President Obama:
Iraq was largely at peace when Mr. Obama came to office in 2009. Reporters who had known Baghdad during the worst days of the insurgency in 2006 marveled at how peaceful the city had become thanks to the U.S. military surge and counterinsurgency. In 2012 Anthony Blinken, then Mr. Biden’s top security adviser, boasted that, “What’s beyond debate” is that “Iraq today is less violent, more democratic, and more prosperous. And the United States is more deeply engaged there than at any time in recent history.”
Mr. Obama employed the same breezy confidence in a speech last year at the National Defense University, saying that “the core of al Qaeda” was on a “path to defeat,” and that the “future of terrorism” came from “less capable” terrorist groups that mainly threatened “diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad.” Mr. Obama concluded his remarks by calling on Congress to repeal its 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force against al Qaeda.
If the war on terror was over, ISIS didn’t get the message. The group, known as Tawhid al-Jihad when it was led a decade ago by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was all but defeated by 2009 but revived as U.S. troops withdrew and especially after the uprising in Syria spiraled into chaos. It now controls territory from the outskirts of Aleppo in northwestern Syria to Fallujah in central Iraq.
I think that we should also keep in mind that the “diplomatic surge” and weapons we promised Iraq after our withdrawal never materialized. This is a movie we’ve seen before: once American forces have been withdrawn, don’t expect our promises to be kept.
I find all of these analyses terribly short-sighted. The path of least resistance in reconstructing Iraq was alway replacing Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Arab strongman, with a Shi’a Arab strongman. Any number of old Iraq hands said as much at the onset of our invasion of the country in 2003. I think that any Shi’a Arab strongman would have done much as Nouri al-Maliki has: shored up his constituency. That they had old grievances to address contributed to the problem.
While we’re assigning blame I’d give some to David Petraeus. COIN has always had the underlying assumption that those employing felt a right to stick around and manage things and would do so. That was never an alternative in Iraq so, consequently, COIN was not an appropriate strategy there. While it might be a good strategy for the colonizing British, it’s far less appropriate for Americans eager to beat a hasty path to the exit door.
I don’t think there’s any question that the Bush Administration botched the entire post-9/11 period from its invasions and occupations to its mismanagement of the tenuous peaces. There was never a good strategy of invading Iraq or Afghanistan. Not unless we were willing to remain in both places indefinitely, something I did not see then and still don’t.
However, let’s not lose track of the senators who voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq. Those included not only the usual Republican suspects, most notably John McCain, a man who apparently has never met a war he didn’t like, but the following Democratic senators: Clinton, Biden, Kerry, Feinstein, and Reid. Don’t believe the mealy-mouthed and self-serving statements they’ve made since 2004. They saw all of the same intelligence that the White House did. If they believed that we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, they should never have voted to do so.