Mosul and the Pottery Barn Rule

The editors of the Wall Street Journal have a scathing editorial on the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, to the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS—the last word is al Sham, not Syria):

Since President Obama likes to describe everything he inherited from his predecessor as a “mess,” it’s worth remembering that when President Bush left office Iraq was largely at peace. Civilian casualties fell from an estimated 31,400 in 2006 to 4,700 in 2009. U.S. military casualties were negligible. Then CIA Director Michael Hayden said, with good reason, that “al Qaeda is on the verge of a strategic defeat in Iraq.”

Fast forward through five years of the Administration’s indifference, and Iraq is close to exceeding the kind of chaos that engulfed it before the U.S. surge. The city of Fallujah, taken from insurgents by the Marines at a cost of 95 dead and nearly 600 wounded in November 2004, fell again to al Qaeda in January. The Iraqi government has not been able to reclaim the entire city—just 40 miles from Baghdad. More than 1,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in May alone, according to the Iraq Body Count web site.

In my view we have botched practically every foreign policy move made since 9/11 in two consecutive administrations (maybe much longer). I find the position that so many seem to be espousing these days, that the only lives that count are American military ones, to be inadequate if not downright opposed to our interests.

We should value stability much, much more than we do. That’s a difficult path with politicians and people as impatient as ours. We are not a radical power like the post-Revolution France or the early Soviet Union. Ours is a long game and stability fosters our interests. Overthrowing or conniving at the overthrow of dictators who put down more radical elements even more opposed to our interests is not a prudent move.

I suspect that the next move in Iraq will be by the Kurds. Much depends on how much they’re willing to tolerate a group largely composed of radical Islamist Sunni Arabs on their doorstep or even in a city they might possibly covet as their capital.

As we prepare to withdraw our forces from Afghanistan we might want to reflect on how well a war waged everywhere between the Bosporus and the Hindu Kush will serve our interests because that’s the direction in which events are heading. I don’t think we’ll be able to stave that off with armed drones.

23 comments… add one
  • steve

    The WSj forgets, shockingly, that Iraq wanted us out of the country. They forget that their guy negotiated the terms on our leaving. Could we have forcibly remained and after an extended occupation left Iraq as stable pro-Western nation. Maybe another 20-30 years of effort? Even then, maybe especially then, I am skeptical.

    While I agree that we should value stability, I dont think we should underestimate the difficulties in deciding how we should achieve that goal. When we support an authoritarian leader/government because their interests align with ours or it provides stability, we seldom have a good end game. We seldom really understand the internal politics of those countries. A choice that provides stability in the short run may inevitably lead to a larger upheaval later.


  • ...

    When we support an authoritarian leader/government because their interests align with ours or it provides stability, we seldom have a good end game.

    As opposed to destroying a country’s government and letting the terrorists run wild? When has that led to a good endgame? Or middlegame, for that matter.

  • michael reynolds

    A choice that provides stability in the short run may inevitably lead to a larger upheaval later.


    I agree that our role in the world is as the pre-eminent status quo power. But in the ME we are up against problems that go very deep, way down into the culture. If we back the strong man we get hammered by his successor. If we back the revolution we get hammered when the revolution fails. If we back the “peace process” we get nowhere. If we fail to back the process we surrender entirely to extremists.

    As Steve points out, the WSJ editorial board is being completely dishonest – as it generally is. There was no way to re-assemble the pot that Mr. Bush broke. We’ll probably get civil war (more civil war, I should say,) or partition.

    But let’s not give ISIS more credit than it deserves. Terrorist movements don’t generally profit from having fixed bases, or from being forced to take on the job of governing.

  • jan

    Facilitating a Status of Forces Agreement, before leaving Iraq, would have added support and stability to Iraq. The gains made there were hard fought, expensive, but somewhat successful. However, any changes for the good are tenuous, vulnerable to being broken down again, without some continuing monitoring and/or oversight in place. Even though the basics of an agreement had already been forged between the former administration and Maliki, there was no follow-though and implementation by the current administration. Consequently, this promising region has slipped back into chaos.

    Some even go as far as to say that while Iraq was won by Petraeus, it was lost by Obama. The case in point now is the Taliban’s occupation of the 2nd largest city, Mosul. Supposedly that campaign yarn about “GM being alive and the Taliban dead,” was just that, as the Taliban has only grown more powerful, metastasized to other areas, posing an even greater national security threat than before this president’s tenure in office.

    The former Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has even written a recent op-ed piece heavily criticizing our equally inept Syrian foreign policy. His personal observations offer a bleak assessment of how our banal intervention has worked, including the removal of chemical materials, which has only been replaced by Chlorine gas being used by Assad forces against the people.

  • PD Shaw

    The sad irony is that Syria and Iraq appear to be moving towards the same outcome with very different U.S. policies. Following the First Gulf War, Iraq was contained in a form of receivership, in which the U.S. was all but inviting an insurgency as the country fell into ruin, before engaging in one of the most (if not the most) extensive nation-building efforts in U.S. history. Syria, under another strong man tyrant, has received little U.S. attention other than moral condemnation of Assad and pressure to eliminate chemical weapons, which Syria may or may not comply with.

  • michael reynolds


    Bull. Stop cutting and pasting whatever propaganda you find that fits your narrative and try looking at the facts. The SOFA was not in place. The Iraqi government that refused to make the necessary concessions was the one put in place by the Bush administration.

    And if we had kept combat forces in Iraq we’d have been taking casualties steadily, they would be a political flash point within Iraq and a convenient target for jihadist bombers. The only way Maliki would have tolerated US forces is as enforcers for his Shiite regime.

    Some things, once FUBAR remain FUBAR and cannot be un-FUBAR. Your favorite president started this war, botched the occupation to an absolutely astounding degree, stuck a completely unreliable (and known by the CIA to be so) Shiite thug in place, and all but handed the keys to Iran.

    Now it’s Obama’s fault. Right. Just like if I break your prized pottery collection it’ll be your fault if you can’t glue the pieces back together.

  • michael reynolds


    Yeah, it’s almost as if the ME is a mess and we aren’t able to fix it. In fact, that’s exactly what it’s like.

    I think if one wants to get historical about it, this goes back to the Ottomans and we’re still seeing the sequelae of their fall, with major contributions by the Russians, by those two gentlemen Sykes and Picot, by Winston Churchill, by Serbs . . . even the Nazis played a role.

    And once things are just about as complicatedly screwed-up as human ingenuity can manage, along come the Americans, tra la, tra la, to fix it all up with dollars, drones, democracy and our famous short attention span.

    I am finally convinced that we should just stick to keeping the Gulf free for oil tankers and otherwise get out and stay out.

  • jan

    The fundamental framework for leaving Iraq was constructed in an agreement made between Bush and Maliki in 2008, which was set to expire in December of 2011. This was always considered a “soft” date, though, with anticipation that immunity protection would be advanced, via negotiated amendments by the Obama Administration, to safeguard any military personnel and contractors remaining beyond that preset date.

    Although, Obama did follow the timetable he inherited from Bush, regarding pulling troops out of Iraq, he miserably failed to successfully insert himself into any further SOFA discussions, going beyond the end of 2011. In the meantime, Obama took the credit (as he always does) for “ending the war,” when in fact all he ended was any further modifications to insuring the transition out of Iraq would be positive, and the gains made there more apt to be enduring.

    However, we all know now that one of Obama’s skill sets, perhaps relating to problems in his “pay grade,” is not having a reliable, sophisticated or savvy negotiating team.

    “Now it’s Obama’s fault. Right.”

    Obama’s exit from Iraq was too vocal, not well executed, and consequently faulty. The same goes for his increased involvement in Afghanistan, where, under his watch the war intensified and the greatest number of military personnel were killed, admidst a poorly mixed bag of commander-in chief policy calls.

    Yes, Bush made a number of mistakes — Bremer’s appointment being a glaring one, as the civilian administrator put in charge of what became a highly mismanaged post-invasion segment of the war. However, Obama’s foreign policy decisions in the ME, have been dismal, putting us more in harm’s way, garnering less respect from global leaders, and basically putting us to greater disadvantage on the world stage than Bush’s policies ever managed to do ..IMO.

  • Andy


    The problem is that we don’t really know how to bring about stability, nor do we know how to maintain it. The best we’ve done is to work to maintain the status quo. That works for a while, but we fail to recognize when that status quo is no longer in our interests or no longer promotes stability.

    Furthermore, in general, our record on starting and/or managing change around the world in order to bring stability is pretty dismal. The occupation of Europe, Japan and Korea after WWII is about the only bright spot in a sea of failure.

    I’m in east Africa right now as part of our government’s latest effort to promote stability. I’m skeptical it will work out in the end, but at least it’s a lot less kinetic than Iraq and Afghanistan and isn’t a rehash of the colonial play book.

  • Mercer

    Jan said:

    ‘The case in point now is the Taliban’s occupation of the 2nd largest city, Mosul.”

    The Taliban are nowhere near Mosul. They are a creation of our “ally” Pakistan and occupy parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    This is a case in point of a big problem: Hawks are eager to send in our military without a good understanding of who they are want to fight. Will they ever learn it is not a good idea to fight a war in a country we don’t know much about?

  • steve

    jan- It is not all about us. The Iraqis have their own elections and their own wants. If you read ME sources (plenty of English interpretations around) it was clear that any Iraqi leader who publicly said he wanted US troops to stay could not win an election. The idea of letting our soldiers stay, but without immunity was floated as a compromise. We, correctly, declined that offer.

    And, you make the mistake of assuming that if we just stayed longer things would be better. We have disproved that elsewhere. Afghanistan. They have been fighting with each other for a long time. The colonial powers fractured the area in ways that have made continued conflict most probable. It is naive to believe that we were going to change these cultures and countries in a few years.


  • jan

    I just read this article appraising Obama’s ME policies as giving Al Qaeda an edge.

    He has ignored US partners in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, while also forfeiting the moral benefit of condemning autocracy by reaching out to dictatorships that hate us, like Russia and Iran. It’s the worst of all worlds: realpolitik with no friends, requiring only such engagement necessary to fill in the blast holes. Focused on the minimal requirements of counterterrorism as emergency international spackle, the administration needs Pakistan only as a drone superhighway, Yemen as a drone cul-de-sac, and Israel not at all.

    Unfortunately, this minimalist approach to foreign policy comes at a cost: even successful counterterrorism cannot change trends on the ground. For that, you need local power; for power, you need allies; for allies, you need engagement. The resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq can be traced to the US disengagement from the Iraqi regime since the last troops departed in 2011.

    The administration’s lack of a status-of-forces agreement reduced its ability to assist Iraq politically, and when combined with lower US aid to the Iraqi state, blunted both our carrots and sticks. From $2.74 billion in aid in 2010, US support fell to $1.97 billion in 2011, $1.52 billion in 2012, and a request of $573 million in 2014.

    Which is fine – we don’t owe corrupt Arab governments anything – except that Iraq, naturally, then pursued policies that were sub-optimal. Shorn of its American minders, the Shia-dominated government’s increasing sectarianism allowed al-Qaeda to once again take root in the areas where US troops de-rooted it [JL1] in 2006. Add that to the festering sore of the Syrian war, where the radicals are the only ones with weapons, and you have the recipe for a fairly robust al-Qaeda presence, drones or no.

    Gone from Iraq, absent from Syria, and no real interest in either. The pivot to Asia is definitely on. Without question, the administration believes counterterrorism a safety net; that if things get bad enough in the Levant, drones can swoop in and destroy a few sub-commanders. Maybe. But both Iraq and Syria should be a lesson that when the influence stops – the money and troops and engagement – so too does American policy.


    Perhaps the usage of “Sunni Militants” or even “Islamic Militants” would have been more accurate labels for the group taking over Mosul. However, there is a loose, complex affiliation between various terrorist groups, all similarly “intertwined in tactics, strategy, and Islamic extremism.” The Haqqani network (the one holding Bergdahl for 5 years), for instance, is allied with the Taliban (the ones physically handing Bergdahl over to the Americans). And, it was the Haqqani’s who were the ones who initially recruited OBL — the noted Al Quada figure. These jihadist groups have evolved together, even if their goals may vary in scope — one is more regional while the other has more global ambitions

  • I am finally convinced that we should just stick to keeping the Gulf free for oil tankers and otherwise get out and stay out.

    If only it were so easy! Not only do we have other interests beside oil in the Middle East and North Africa the interests of our allies are even greater. Germany and France in particular do billions in trade with the countries of MENA.

  • PD Shaw

    Peter Beinart had a nice article about the problem with our foreign policy discussions:

    “Let’s briefly review the American foreign-policy debates of the past year. Last August, President Obama declared that he would bomb Syria for defying his call to not use chemical weapons. Then, in a sharp about-face, he decided instead to work with Russia to dismantle the weapons, and was denounced as weak by hawkish critics. Obama’s supporters said he had done as well as he could have under the circumstances. Two months later, America and its allies struck an interim nuclear deal with Iran. Hawks called it appeasement. Obama’s supporters said it was as good as one could expect under the circumstances. Within hours of the deal, China claimed the right to monitor and possibly take military action against aircraft crossing a disputed area of the East China Sea. Hawks denounced Obama’s response as weak. The president’s supporters said it was as strong as possible under the circumstances. Then, in February, Russia began menacing Ukraine. Hawks called Obama’s response weak. His supporters said the president was doing all he reasonably could.”

    His point is the U.S. has lacked a strategy at least since the end of the Cold War. (I think a grand strategy might be overvalued) And specifically we have lost the ability to prioritize.

  • ...

    Andy, post WWII policy in Europe was disastrous for the first few years. We didn’t start doing things well until the Marshall Plan, which didn’t start until three years after the war ended. We didn’t plan the WWII endgame, in other words.

  • His point is the U.S. has lacked a strategy at least since the end of the Cold War. (I think a grand strategy might be overvalued) And specifically we have lost the ability to prioritize.

    I think I’ve told this story before but back in college I had a year-long argument with my professor of U. S. diplomatic history. His basic point was that the U. S. does not have a foreign policy and never has had.

    I didn’t have the language to describe my position then but I do now. American foreign policy is an emergent phenomenonl, the product of thousands or even millions of choices, decisions, and actions. That simultaneously makes U. S. foreign policy hard to pin down and remarkably durable over time.

    The idea that the president crafts a foreign policy which the State Department executes is something that better describes some other country.

  • michael reynolds

    I’m a big fan of emergent phenomena (now that I know the phrase). It’s how I write, in fact. I wrote a 3000 page YA series with something like 40 or 50 named characters and dozens of plots which, according to the reviews, came together perfectly and looked as if it had been carefully planned. No such plan. Made it up every day as I went along, trusting that it would all somehow come together. Much the same with a 63 book, 10,000 page, god-only-knows-how-many-plotlines, series that just got a very sweet shout-out from XKCD.

    Making shit up and emerging phenomenologically. Improv, baby, all improv. Not working quite as well in my child-rearing job, but hey, that has a ways to go, it could all still work.

  • steve

    I think we could possibly have had a grand strategy of sorts during the Cold War. Oppose communism’s expansion. Oppose the Soviet Union and Red China. With the Cold War over, I am not sure things will ever be so simple again. In particular, it is difficult to form a coherent, consistent strategy against non-state actors.

  • The problem is that we don’t really know how to bring about stability, nor do we know how to maintain it.

    Sure. But we could try, say, using a little prudent judgment and avoid doing things because they destabilize things. Actions like, say, invading Iraq which everyone who knows anything about Iraq told us would destabilize Iraq and might well destabilize the region.

    Or invading Afghanistan, kicking out the government, and then leaving without a stable solution in place. We can be pretty darned confident that the situation will rapidly become worse when we leave.

    Becoming the Air Force for the Libyan opposition. Our policy towards Egypt. Our policy towards Syria. I think that all of those policies were predicated on the notion that nothing could possibly be worse than the status quo and we’ve been wrong every single time.

    What I find missing both from the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration is the notion of path dependence. We can no longer choose not to invade Iraq or Afghanistan or the course of action we might have taken instead . We might consider trying to identify the course of action that would produce the greatest amount of stability rather than the least.

  • Guarneri

    “We can no longer choose not to invade Iraq or Afghanistan or the course of action we might have taken instead. We might consider trying to identify the course of action that would produce the greatest amount of stability rather than the least.”

    Heh. I’m no foreign policy expert, but this point – developed in another arena: from years and years of corporate strategy and execution (or not) experience – resonates like nothing else in this thread.

  • steve

    So I get Iraq. That seems obvious. For Afghanistan I doubt we had a god way to go after AQ absent an invasion, but maybe we can grant you that one. Maybe. But, what did we do to destabilize Egypt and Syria? The Egyptians were unhappy with their dictator. I doubt that we had much influence in what they did. Could we have sent in troops and helped Mubarrak stay in power? Risky, and suspect it just makes things worse. Syria. We have really just been a bit player. The red line statement about chem weapons may not have been slick, but we didnt go bomb or invade. We might be sending weapons, not clear, but it is pretty clear that the Saudis are financing a lot of the rebels, and giving them arms. Looks like an unstable mess with or without us. Could we have done something to make it more stable? Choose a side? Ugh.

    I think you can also make a case for Libya, but we did intervene when it looked like Qadaffi was about to initiate a massacre. Can you really say things were stable? Our allies believed that aiding the rebels and getting rid of Qadaffi would make things more stable. They were doing what you suggest, they just happened to (probably) be wrong.

    Which still gets us back to the original statement. How do you know which course will make things the most stable? As Andy said we can sometimes promote the status quo, but when countries decide to revolt and overthrow the dictator we favored in order to maintain stability, it creates real problems for us. When faced with countries having internal troubles, especially civil wars, I dont think it is often clear what will work best. Heaven knows we have proved we dont understand the ME and our attempts mostly fail. Removing Mossadegh provided stability for a while. Kept the oil companies happy for a bit. What did it do to long run stability?


  • When “we” (meaning the Iranian military abetted by the British and secondarily the United States) removed Mossadegh, things were stable in Iran as long as we were willing to support the Shah. When we stopped supporting the Shah, events definitely turned against us. Turned out that support for the Shah was a tiger we dared not dismount.

    The alternatives in Iran in the 1950s were either a) support the military and the Shah or b) let the Tudeh take over which meant that Iran would have become a Soviet republic. The notion that there was a liberal democratic alternative is a fiction.

    Support for rebels in any way, shape, or form in countries without liberal democratic institutions is a losing proposition for us. That’s true in Libya. It’s true in Syria. It’s true in Egypt.

    What should we have done in Egypt? Use whatever influence we have or can gain with the regime to encourage it to allow the growth of liberal democratic institutions. We can’t go back 20 years but we can move forwards.

    Another point: once we intervene militarily (in any form) there are moral, legal, and strategic implicatons that would not be the case otherwise. The idea that, like the Lone Ranger, we can ride into town, defeat the bad guys, ride out again, and all will be well is fiction.

  • TastyBits

    Coups are not engineered through Facebook and Twitter. Citizens rising up and overthrowing their dictators are fictions told to children. Hungry, China, and Iraq are examples of citizen uprisings and the results, and some would add Iranians to the list.

    Libya and Syria were coup engineered by serious people. In Egypt I, the military stood by and allowed it to go forth. In Egypt II, the military used the standard playbook for dealing with these problems:

    1. roundup the leaders
    2. roundup the families of the leaders in hiding
    3. roundup any followers
    4. roundup anybody suspected of being a follower
    5. roundup anybody known to not be a follower but who looks like a follower (make an example)

    Once everybody is arrested, they hold a mass trial where most are found guilty. Torture is more than dunking somebody’s head under water, making them standing in a corner, or sending them to bed without supper.

    At the end of the Cold War we were told that we had come to the end of history. There were those who disagreed. It was only a matter of time before we were proven right. The world operates on power. Civilization is only possible by holding back the natural human tendencies. Unfortunately, civilized men and women begin to believe that civilization is the natural state of man.

    Man does not yearn for freedom. Man yearns for a club to beat his fellow man into submission, or he yearns for a protector from the man with the club. Once you accept this reality, you can begin to formulate a realistic foreign policy.

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