Obama and Iraq: 'Through a Glass, Darkly'
“The time has come to set aside childish things.” With these words, President Barack Obama, in his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2009, pushed aside “the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas” which he claimed “far too long have strangled our politics.” This passing reference to the Scripture (1 Corinthians 13:11) served as the vehicle with which Obama broke with the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush. While the differences in policy between Obama and Bush were many, they were particularly stark on the issue of the war in Iraq. On the surface, Obama’s televised address on Sept. 7, 2010, in which he somberly announced “the end of our combat mission in Iraq,” brought closure to a conflict as unnecessary as it was elective, and fulfilled, however superficially, his pledge to do just that. Unfortunately, Obama has come face to face with the biblical line “But now we see through a glass, darkly,” which immediately follows the Scriptural verse he mentioned in his inaugural address. The president and the American people will all too soon come to recognize that the quagmire in Iraq is far from over. In fact, one might say it has only just begun.
In what passed for the “Iraq master plan” as set forth by the Bush administration, Iraq’s oil wealth was to create the foundation of economic viability, which would then pave the way for political stability and improve internal security to the extent that U.S. combat troops could be withdrawn from that war-torn land. In a perfect world, this plan had a certain irrefutable logic, and as such was for the most part endorsed by politicians from both major parties, the mainstream media and the majority of the American people, enamored as they were with the Colin Powell-esque ethic of the “Pottery Barn Rule” that held “if you broke it, you own it.” And there can be no doubt that, regardless of the abuses which had occurred during the rule of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, America had, through the waging of two wars (1991 and 2003), the implementation of more than two decades of U.N.-backed economic sanctions and a disastrous occupation, “broke” Iraq.
To make amends for these actions, the American people have tolerated more than seven years of redefined missions (which ranged from disarming Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, to imposing democracy, to creating stability, and, finally, to creating the conditions for stability), all the while recoiling from the enormous cost in terms of human lives and treasure (American, allied and Iraqi). Compounding the problems associated with a fluid mission was the fact that the “enemy” in Iraq was similarly ill-defined — the Shiites were our friends, until Moqtada al-Sadr became our enemy; the Sunnis were our enemies, until the “Awakening” movement made them our allies; and “al-Qaida in Iraq” went from being composed almost exclusively of foreigners to being almost exclusively Iraqi, to being whatever the U.S. military chose to define it as. This lack of a discernable foe made any traditional military combat mission designed to close with and destroy the enemy through firepower and maneuver impossible to execute.
While the United States military can claim that it did not lose the war in Iraq, it will have a hard time backing up any claims of victory. America was denied its “Missouri moment” in Iraq — the Baathists of Saddam Hussein’s regime were never compelled to line up, as the Japanese had in Tokyo Bay in August 1945, and sign a surrender document. This lack of closure highlights the ever-present reality that while American forces may have defeated Saddam Hussein’s divisions, and ultimately captured or killed the Iraqi president and the majority of his senior officials, the fighting would last for years and continues today.
History has highlighted, and will continue to highlight, the failures inherent in the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq following the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. As liberation transformed into anarchy and the illusory “flowers and song” greeting turned into rancor and resistance, it became clear that the United States lacked a coherent plan and vision for rebuilding a post-Saddam Iraq. The dream of rapidly reconstituting a viable Iraqi nation was soon shattered by the reality of a land laid to waste by the combined effects of war and economic sanctions. This process was also hampered by an Iraqi people who lacked faith in one another, and were alienated by the ideology, incompetence and corruption of the American occupation of their country. Despite the prewar assurances and guarantees made by senior officials in the Bush administration, Iraq’s “oil miracle” never occurred, and as such any hopes of building a solid economic foundation upon which an indigenous framework of governance could be placed were quashed. With no anchor upon which to steady itself, Iraq’s drive toward democracy was instead cut adrift amid the treacherous currents of internal politics, regional insecurity and international greed.
In many ways, the American experience in Iraq has been defined more by the fantasy dreamed up in Washington, D.C., than by the reality on the ground. That fantasy has included the “purple finger revolution,” which came to symbolize Iraq’s first national election of the post-Saddam era (Iraq still lacks a viable, cohesive government); the much-hyped military “surge” of 2006-2007, which had all the real impact of punching air; and the farcical economic “success” of major oil companies bidding on Iraqi oil exploration rights (orchestrated by an Iraqi Oil Ministry lacking both a governmental structure and legal basis for issuing such bids, given the Iraqi Parliament’s inability to pass an oil law. American politicians, aided and abetted by a fawning mainstream media, have fabricated a fiction aimed at a largely ignorant American public that fails to address the real problems in Iraq. It is in this topsy-turvy world created by political hype and media spin that a president can, with a straight face, announce the withdrawal of American “combat troops” from Iraq, while leaving behind six combat brigades (renamed, but not reorganized) comprising some 50,000 troops to fight and die in “noncombat.” Even more incredible is the notion that this slight-of-hand political maneuvering can accomplish anything that would resolve the issues and problems in Iraq today. In opting to draw down American “combat troops” prior to Iraq resolving its considerable political and economic woes, President Obama has completely flipped the logical, yet flawed, plan that the United States had been acting on for the past seven years, a plan built on three central concepts: economic stability (oil), political stability (democracy) and internal stability (security). Left to its own devices, Iraq would have no choice but to proceed in this manner. The experience of Iraqi Kurdistan, through its autonomous exploitation of its energy resources, demonstrates the critical importance of building a solid economic foundation in order to preserve stability, even at a regional level. The decision to attract big oil to Iraq was driven more by corporate greed than the genuine will of the Iraqi people, as witnessed by the Iraqi Parliament’s continued inability to pass a national oil law. The economic benefits that could be accrued through the exploration and exploitation of Iraq’s oil fields by multinational energy companies are as controversial as they are hypothetical. The current production rate of 2.5 million barrels per day continues to fall short of Iraqi production rates prior to the U.S.-led invasion in April 2003, and optimistic estimates that Iraq will be able to reach a production rate of 12 million barrels per day by 2016, which many analysts scoff at as technically implausible, are unrealistic given the unresolved political and security crises which continue to grip Iraq.
The American occupation of Iraq has produced a subculture of social dependency which is almost colonial in nature. The majority of Iraqis involved in either government or security operations remain entirely dependent on American financial, political and military support. These are the voices that speak the loudest in favor of a continued American presence in Iraq, since any American withdrawal would result in their demise. And yet it is these very voices that have become increasingly marginalized in Iraq. The true centers of political influence lie in the very Shiite and Sunni segments of society the United States has been fighting against these past seven years — Sadr’s followers and the Sunni tribal groups once loyal to Saddam Hussein. The inevitable course of history mandates that these indigenous forces will ultimately prevail over the foreign-imposed artificiality that rules Iraq today. The continued presence of American troops prolongs the inevitable political realignment that must take place for Iraq to have any chance of succeeding as a viable nation state. The presence of American troops also ensures that this transformation will be much more violent than the natural course of events dictate.
For all of the political, economic and military investment made in Iraq by the United States, the reality is that the three Iraqi neighbors least consulted by the United States in the buildup to the 2003 invasion have become the most influential players in shaping Iraq’s internal political future and influencing the country’s ultimate regional alignment. These three nations — Turkey, Syria and Iran — continue to work toward an Iraq where the political and economic interests of Shiite, Sunni and Kurds are met in a mutually beneficial manner. The ultimate political makeup of Iraq’s eventual government is no longer something dictated by Washington, but rather negotiated through the offices of Ankara, Damascus and Tehran. The United States, through its exclusionary policies, is no longer viewed as a constructive force on shaping these issues, but rather as an obstacle to be navigated around or ignored. The only viable policy option that exists for the United States in Iraq today is to disengage as gracefully as possible, and leave Iraq’s future in the hands of its people and its neighbors.
Such a course of action is fraught with political risk. Instead, President Obama is hoping that the majority of Americans will reward him for keeping his promise to bring American combat troops home from Iraq by August 2010. The fact that 50,000 American troops remain in Iraq, configured into six “advisory and assist” brigades that are structurally identical to their “combat” counterparts, underscores the dishonesty of this action. American troops have already been killed in “noncombat” operations in Iraq, and they will continue to be killed. The 50,000 “noncombat” troops remaining in Iraq are little more than caretakers of a U.S. system — economic, political and military — in Iraq that has never taken hold, and is in fact rotting away from the inside out. Six months after “critical” national elections, Iraq has a Parliament which has met only once, and no government. No government means no oil law, and hence no economic recovery derived from effective exploitation of Iraqi oil resources. And the longer Iraq functions without a strong central government, the more fractured and sectarian its security forces will become.
The Obama administration’s so-called strategy for Iraq lacks any discernable benchmarks for success. Void of any coherent definition of what “success” in Iraq might actually look like, the “withdrawal” of “combat troops” from Iraq can be viewed as little more than an ineffective attempt by a faltering president to improve his image — and that of his floundering party — on the eve of critical midterm elections. By continuing to place American troops in harm’s way in Iraq for no reason other than to prop up his domestic political image, Obama has compounded his mistakes in ways that allow his political viability to be questioned, tarnish his legacy and undermine America’s image at home and abroad. Rather than living up to the promise of his inaugural address to “set aside childish things,” President Obama has given us a glimpse of the future “through a glass, darkly.”