Rare is the day that I find that Thomas Friedman has written something actually worth reading, but he manages to deliver an even-handed and even insightful look into the end of the war in Iraq. Of course, he cannot resist putting in a few digs at President Bush, but overall his message is true: the future of Iraq will be decided by whether the Iraqi people can pull their country together.
Iraq had its strategic benefits: the removal of a genocidal dictator; the defeat of Al Qaeda there, which diminished its capacity to attack us; the intimidation of Libya, which prompted its dictator to surrender his nuclear program (and helped expose the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear network); the birth in Kurdistan of an island of civility and free markets and the birth in Iraq of a diverse free press. But Iraq will only be transformational if it truly becomes a model where Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, the secular and religious, Muslims and non-Muslims, can live together and share power.
As you can see in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, this is the issue that will determine the fate of all the Arab awakenings. Can the Arab world develop pluralistic, consensual politics, with regular rotations in power, where people can live as citizens and not feel that their tribe, sect or party has to rule or die? This will not happen overnight in Iraq, but if it happens over time it would be transformational, because it is the necessary condition for democracy to take root in that region. Without it, the Arab world will be a dangerous boiling pot for a long, long time.
Friedman thinks that Iraq was a war where the U.S. and Iraq both paid too high a price, but he’s right in pointing out that the war had its benefits. Without the invasion of Iraq, we would not have seen the wave of revolutions across the Arab world that we’re seeing now. The visions of Iraqis going to the polls and choosing their own leaders left an indelible mark on the region. From Tunis to Tehran others in the Arab and Muslim world saw Iraq hold peaceful elections and wondered “why can’t I do this?” It took years to come to fruition, and it is far too early to see whether the Arab Spring will lead to a victory for Islamists or a real democratic movement (or some combination of both). But in the end, one thing was right: the invasion of Iraq marked a turning point.
That’s where the critics of the war in Iraq kept getting it wrong: they assumed that the U.S. and its allies went to war for one reason and one reason only: weapons of mass destruction. But wars are never that simple: and while WMDs were chosen as the primary causus belli for the war, that wasn’t the only one. The war in Iraq was intended to be a transformational moment for the region. It was, but it happened on a far longer timetable than the planners of the war perhaps thought.
I also take issue with the idea that the war was waged “incompetently.” The fact is that we took out Saddam Hussein in a matter of days. Yes, we made plenty of mistakes in the post-war period. But that’s not because the U.S. was incompetent. It’s because the U.S. has not done anything like what it had to do in Iraq before in its history. The U.S. had never engaged in nation building on a scale like it had in Iraq. The analogies to the Marshall Plan ignore the fact that while Europe was devastated by World War II, it has had a tradition of democracy and civil society that has barely existed in Iraq. Of course we were going to screw things up: the most important thing was that we adapted to the situation as it happened. Sadly, the Bush Administration was slower to adapt than it should have, but the fact was that Bush’s embrace of the “surge” (against the political conventional wisdom) was the right choice, which even Friedman now admits.
If we had done what John Kerry would have had us do: abandon Iraq early and leave it to al-Qaeda and Iran, who knows what the Middle East would look like today. Iraq would have been ripped apart by a combination of al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.
The planners of the surge were right in separating Iraq’s Sunnis from al-Qaeda. Once al-Qaeda in Iraq was destroyed by the joint U.S.-Iraqi forces, Iraq’s Shi’ites no longer felt the need to rally around groups like Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Instead of trying to force a “political solution” without changing the reality on the ground, President Bush and the U.S. military set the groundwork for a political solution to happen on its own: something that could have only happened once al-Qaeda was defeated.
Now it’s ultimately up to the Iraqis to decide their own fate. The U.S. has left Iraq, and while leaving so completely without at least establishing basing rights in Iraq was an utter failure of the Obama Administration, the mission in Iraq was going to have to transition to Iraqi control at some point. We could not provide a security umbrella in Iraq—otherwise the Iraqis would have had no incentive to develop their own security umbrella.
But there is still a problem: President Obama got his wish. We’re out of Iraq now. And now President Obama will basically ignore Iraq—not that any of the Republican candidates care to engage there either. But right now, as Friedman notes, Iraq is in a state of transition that could either lead to a chance at a lasting democracy or a renewed civil war, At the very least we should be active in getting both sides to negotiate rather than start to rearm sectarian militias.
Right now, Iraq’s future is in grave trouble: the Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has accused Iraq’s Sunni Vice President of being involved in terrorism and is threatening to upset the delicate political balance that has kept the peace in Iraq. The arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi threatens to split off the Sunni Iraqiya bloc, and since al-Hasmemi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, it may lead to tension with the Kurds as well. If that happens, then Iraq could all too easily fall into civil war once again.
If President Bush were President, there would be extensive shuttle diplomacy going on to cool these tensions: but President Obama seems blithely uninterested in the long-term peace in Iraq. That mistake threatens to undo everything that more than 4,000 brave Americans fought and died to achieve.
We did pay a high price to bring a hope for democracy to Iraq, but what was achieved there could be transformative for the region and for the world. But if we neglect Iraq, we risk losing everything. It may be ultimately up to the Iraqis to shape their own future, but we cannot pretend that we’re not interested in the results, and we should not abandon them when we could help them create and maintain a stable and civil society.