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Iraq: Another 30 Years?

Whether and how the Iraqi state evolves during this crisis might well determine whether the U.S. is looking at yet another 30 years.
Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border at the Fishkhabur crossing, in northern Iraq, on August 13, 2014.
Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border at the Fishkhabur crossing, in northern Iraq, on August 13, 2014.

For 30 years, the U.S. and Iraq have been locked in a tortured embrace both as confederates and adversaries. Their long relationship has been the result of both calculation and contingency and, like many hostile dependencies, has proved difficult for either party to escape.

From 1984 to 1990, the two were allies of convenience against the revolutionary Shi’ism of Khomeini’s Iran; between 1990 and 2000 they were foes struggling over the regional order; during the early years of the new millennium, 2001-2003, the U.S. targeted Iraq as the enemy in a dramatic U.S. counter-terrorism campaign provoked by 9/11; since then, the US and Iraq have resumed their awkward alliance against Islamic extremism - but primarily Sunni this time rather than Shi’a. It has been quite a ride.

In the early 1980s, after Saddam had come to power, the chief U.S. diplomat in Iraq, Bill Eagleton, had plenty of time to wander the hills of Kurdistan collecting pile weavings. There was simply not much else to do. The product of U.S. diplomacy in this period was a book, still a standard reference, on Kurdish rugs. As the Iran-Iraq war heated up in the latter half of that decade, the U.S. saw Iraq as a tacit ally in the larger battle with the Islamic Republic of Iran, while Iraq, under serious military pressure, concluded that contact with the U.S. might be useful, even necessary. In exchange for Iraq expending tens of thousands of lives to hold back Iran, the U.S. launched Operation Staunch, designed to starve Iran of weapons, while helping Iraq scour the world for arms that might tip the balance in Baghdad’s – and the West’s – favor. Washington refused to let Saddam’s massacre of thousands of Kurds with chemical weapons in March 1988 complicate these arrangements and turned a blind eye to Iraq’s use of nerve gas against Iranian troops in the decisive battle of al-Faw peninsula a month later. Iraq gloated that “for every insect, there is the proper insecticide.” From Washington’s viewpoint, morality had to be subordinated to the higher calling of geo-political necessity. This phase of the relationship yielded the iconic image of Senator Robert Dole in Baghdad in April 1990 shaking Saddam’s hand and assuring him that a Voice of America writer who’d made a plea for “No More Secret Police” had been fired.  (Dole was misinformed.)

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait several months later led to a bad case of whiplash for US policymakers. George H.W. Bush, an old-fashioned believer in the balance-of-power as the key to stability, saw that balance being rather badly upset by the prospect of Saddam—who was understood to be a psychopath even if, up to that point, he’d been our psychopath – controlling not just Iraq’s massive oil reserves, but also Kuwait’s and potentially Saudi Arabia’s. The U.S. shifted overnight from Iraq’s closest fremeny to its mortal foe. What followed in 1990-91 is all too well known. The Bush administration gathered a wall-to-wall coalition of states against Iraq, probably one of the largest political cover operations in recorded history and -- using a tank army accumulated over decades for an anticipated apocalyptic war with the Warsaw Pact in the north German plain and a new class of precision guided weapons – scattered Iraqi forces after hammering them for a month with Rolling Thunder style B-52 bombing raids. The irony is that if Saddam’s timing had waited even just a year, the vast army used against him would have been relocated to the United States from Germany and very likely unavailable for Operation Desert Storm.

Although Bush was prudent enough not to go all the way to Baghdad and, as a thoroughgoing realist, content to stand by as Saddam massacred Shiites in the south and assaulted Kurds in the North, America’s future nonetheless remained entwined with Iraq’s fate. The cable lashing the two countries together was the cease-fire agreement and subsequent UNSC sanctions resolutions that were supposed to regulate Iraqi behavior, enable UN inspectors to get to the bottom of Iraq’s WMD programs and, eventually, protect vulnerable Shiite and Kurdish populations. The problem for Washington was that only the U.S. could take the lead on enforcement and compliance efforts, because it was only the U.S. that had the means and the political will to do so, especially in view of Allied wobbliness and Russian and Chinese double-dealing.  Sanctions, in the meantime, were having significant effects on Iraqi state and society; effects that would determine the outcome of subsequent wars.

In Iraq, the imposition of sweeping economic sanctions conferred greater control over the economy – especially the burgeoning black market spurred by sanctions – on Saddam. This empowered him to reward allies and punish enemies, which in turn enabled him to reconsolidate his control even after a devastating military defeat. As his power grew, so did his capacity for systematic repression at home and defiance of enemies abroad. While this perverse process played out, the impoverishment of the country slowly hollowed out the middle class and then destroyed it. This in turn removed whatever possibility there might have been for the resuscitation of civil society in a country where the regime’s policies had already been designed to dismantle it. The strangulation of the bourgeoisie wasn’t the only unintended consequence of sanctions. Tens of thousands of children – or perhaps more, the numbers are disputed – began to die of malnutrition or poor medical care.  By the late 1990s, the very recalcitrance of the regime, despite periodic US airstrikes, combined with regional and ultimately global unease with the toll exacted by sanctions on ordinary Iraqis, began to undermine support for a punitive policy toward Iraq imposed nearly a decade earlier.

As dusk descended on the Clinton administration, stark choices emerged from the gloom. For the French and Russians, desirous of the business opportunities that a sanctions-free Iraq would provide, the increasingly unsustainable status quo dictated the reintegration of Saddam’s Iraq into the international order. For the U.S. and UK, supported by the Dutch, this outcome was unthinkable, despite their own creeping doubts about the survivability of sanctions. They sought a third way in the form of “smart sanctions” that would allegedly keep up the pressure on the regime without battering beleaguered ordinary Iraqis. This approach never really got traction, however, and as the decade ended the faded hopes for a clever alternative gave way to fears that that the only alternative to the French and Soviet approach was regime change.

War was an unappetizing prospect for the U.S. and UK at that point, so the French and Soviet proposal was something of a Hobson’s choice. Unsurprisingly, neither Washington nor London was willing to play this game.  In any event, the new Bush administration came in with a renewed emphasis on the “big boys” – the transatlantic alliance, Russia, China – and a disregard for the trivial players, particularly in the Middle East. Very nearly immediately, the Bush team became embroiled in a crisis with China over the collision of an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese fighter, an imbroglio that seemed to confirm the administration’s redefinition of China as a strategic competitor. Iraq seemed very far from the Oval office, despite apparent efforts to entrap Iraq in war by inviting attacks against U.S. aircraft overflying Iraq. Indeed, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld began the process of dismantling the army that had won the first Gulf War to reformat the military for a new, high tech kind of war that deemphasized the need for large ground forces.

Then, came the ultimate contingency in the U.S.-Iraq relationship: 9/11. This deranging tragedy triggered war planning against Iraq almost immediately. The Bush administration, which had won an election he lost in votes by virtue of a court decision against Al Gore – who in yet another contingent factor would almost certainly not have invaded Iraq -- connected 9/11 to Iraq. The presence of senior officials on Bush’s team, especially Paul Wolfowitz, for whom the first Gulf war was never properly concluded, reinforced this connection. This war completed the destruction of Iraq by following the evisceration of civil society by sanctions with a decapitating blow that – in a fatal instant – removed all state capacity, unleashing a savage civil war in which an exposed and vulnerable society took refuge where they could find it. This haven turned out to be sectarian identity and the warlords who instrumentalized it. And in geopolitical terms, the U.S. removed at a stroke Iran’s only strategic adversary in the Middle East – apart from Israel – giving Iran’s mullahs a break they probably never dreamed possible.

With the second Gulf war, the U.S.-Iraq relationship entered another, more intense phase, culminating in a troop surge that succeeded in quelling the first wave of jihad, but failed in its larger objective of providing the space for Maliki to establish a legitimate government. After a two-year pause this dance of death has now resumed with U.S. airstrikes and deployment of advisory and intelligence personnel to that fissiparous state. The question, to paraphrase General David Petraeus, is how this thing ends.

It’s a complicated question.  For some, there is an issue of obligation. In Colin Powell’s famous formula, “you break it, you buy it.” From this viewpoint, the U.S. has a responsibility to stick with Iraq until it’s fixed; a generational commitment. Others acknowledge the obligation but say that $2 trillion dollars and 4,000 KIA’s is sufficient to discharge this debt. 

The United States certainly has a continuing strategic interest in Iraq. This interest is defined in a number of overlapping ways, which seem to devolve at this point to counter-terrorism. If the U.S. doesn’t stop the ISIL onslaught, the argument goes, a jihadist state could take root in Iraq and radiate violence that will unsettle traditional regional allies and ultimately reach the U.S. homeland. 

Will ISIL, as some believe, shatter on contact with U.S. military power? Or is it skilled and resilient enough to adapt and fight on in the face of U.S. air power absent the additional threat of U.S. boots on the ground? One way or another, the lingering potency of the threat of terrorism is likely to keep the U.S. entangled with the Iraqi government as Washington tries to mobilize Baghdad to wage a counterinsurgency campaign that the U.S. itself could undertake only after a thorough overhaul of its military training, doctrine, and tactics under a revamped leadership in the Pentagon and in Baghdad. These are challenges that Baghdad, at this point, seems unlikely to meet even if it had the will. Whether and how the Iraqi state evolves during this crisis might well determine whether the U.S. is looking at yet another 30 years.

Yet the fact is that the United States has walked away from even deeper commitments. The Nixon administration abandoned Vietnam after an incalculably greater expenditure and 57,000 American deaths – and vastly larger Vietnamese losses. It is true that Nixon undertook to provide continuing support to the South Vietnamese government, but Congress blocked it and two years later it was over. Americans, rightly or wrongly, decided enough was enough. Perhaps the American people have reached that point with Iraq.

Steven Simon served in the National Security Council as Senior Director for Middle and North Africa from 2011-2012 and as Senior Director for Transnational Threats 2005-2009. He is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.