“PROTESTERS STORM IRAQI PARLIAMANT”
“IF ABADI FAILS TO SURVIVE CHAOS, U.S. MUST DECIDE WHAT’S NEXT?”
The leading headlines in this morning’s Washington Post. Let’s consider the implications of each. First, what does it mean for Iraq when thousands of protesters, allegedly at the behest or at least at the encouragement of Moqtada al-Sadr, (Shiite cleric and militia leader) storm and trash the very seat of government in Iraq? Allegedly their government. Consider that al-Sadr is Shiite, not a Sunni, so the protest was not that of an “out-group” (Sunni’s, Baathists) protesting the evil ways of the Shiite ruling majority in Parliament. No. In fact, this protest and others in Iraq’s recently, was undertaken against corruption and double-dealing on the part of Iraq’s elected leaders. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had made recent moves to replace corrupt members of his cabinet with U.S. support, apparently, as the protest attests, to no avail.
It might be worthwhile noting that Baghdad’s fortified “Green Zone,” where the Iraqi Parliament and the U.S. Embassy are located, has been off limits to your ordinary Iraqi citizen since the U.S. invasion in 2003. (It was off-limits during Sadaam’s rule as well.) It’s an area of Baghdad that I’m familiar with having spent weeks within its confines on two trips several years ago. It is also the area that houses Saddam Hussein’s former palace as well as several government offices and the diplomatic missions of several foreign nations. This four square mile zone in the heart of Baghdad is, to say the least, certainly one of Iraq’s most protected and fortified areas in the entire country. Apparently Iraqi security forces and the army were overwhelmed by the sheer size and determination of the protestors. They basically trashed the Parliament’s chambers. On the other hand, they – ordinary citizens of Iraq – did, for the first time, actually get to enter the Green Zone and view the seat of their own government. Such is the precarious reality that is the sate of democracy in Iraq 13 years after the United States invasion – to bring Democracy - and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
I am reminded of a Middle East scholar friend of mine’s comment who remarked during the Bush run-up to the 2003 invasion that: “This will be a disaster of the first order. Guaranteed!” Even me with my scant knowledge of all things Middle Eastern, I had the feeling that the invasion’s planners – Rumsfeld, Chaney and Rice – were little more than “limousine diplomats” – internationalists who know a country from the inside of a limo as they are escorted accompanied by blazing sirens between the international airport and a downtown hotel – who did not have a clue what they were about to unleash in Iraq given the sectarian and clan fault lines that Hussein often violently counteracted. Recall, if you will, his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. U.S. actions in governing during the our occupation, including the Provisional Authority’s actions led by an oblivious Paul Bremer such as the De-Baathification that left Iraq without an Army, national police force and professionals in government, only compounded the original mistake of invasion. Taking all this together, and you have the situation that exists in Iraq 13 years later. Including, just for good measure, control of a swath of the country by ISIS.
Given the blindingly ignorant presumptions and actions while we ruled Iraq and the country’s underlying, deeply divisive volatility, it is no huge surprise that the Iraqi government is today basically a rear guard exercise in attempting to keep the country from flying apart at the seams.
The second headline, ‘what should the U.S. do about the disaster that is Iraq today” to paraphrase, comes after the surprise visit by Secretary of State John Kerry the day before the protesters overran the Parliament building and just a few days after President Obama pledged 250 more technical advisors to the Iraqi Army in the fight against ISIS. The two aims of the current U.S. government in its involvement in Iraq – defeating ISIS and stabilizing Iraq’s government – are intricately inter-meshed. A stable, effective government supports the Iraqi Army, provides it with equipment, and directs its actions in its efforts to defeat ISIS and to stamp out the many militia’s who support a variety of objectives counter to both the government’s effective rule of the country and towards a peaceful existence for the citizens of Iraq. A future, let’s say.
In essence, however, the “What Should The U.S. Do About Iraq” is a moral question more than a strategic one. The real question is “What Do We Owe The Iraqi People?” 13 years after George Bush, Dick Chaney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice determined that the U.S. would bring democracy to this Middle Eastern nation. Arguably, thirteen years later as the protests demonstrate, we have singularly failed in achieving what was allegedly our primary goal. Not, as my friend prophesized, that this outcome was unexpected by folks who knew something about Iraq back in 2003. Today, strategically and militarily, we have nothing at stake in Iraq other than attempting to ensure that the entire Middle East doesn’t simply plunge into a shitstorm of strife and sectarian warfare.
Except that it already has plunged into such a shitstorm. This rationale is basically wishful thinking in the reality that is the Middle East in 2016 – whatever the reasons might be. So unless sending battleground troops to Iraq and Syria is in the offing as Trump and Cruz have proposed, then militarily we’ve shot our load, so to speak, and it has simply failed. The 250 new advisors to Iraq, buttresses our already stated aim of beefing up the Iraqi Army so that it can defeat ISIS and bring order to Iraq. A limited role to be sure, and one that keeps the U.S. more or less only marginally involved in the Middle East.
There is no question that the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq, that original mistake and the others that followed during our occupation, has aided and abetted Iraq’s instability. Thus, the moral issue. After all, we did destroy the only functioning government in the country when we invaded, no matter how brutal Hussein’s rule was. But one has to ask “How long does our moral responsibility for our errors continue to hold us trapped, continue to hold us accountable?” And doesn’t nearly a trillion dollars in post-invasion investment pay off most, if not all, of this debt? And doesn’t our thirteen year long effort to create and encourage a stable, democratic Iraq go some major distance towards repayment?
Absent permanent U.S. military occupation of Iraq, there is nothing that we can do that will heal that nation’s sectarian divisions. Arguably, a military occupation would only delay a final reckoning. They are old; they are intransigent; they are deep. And after thirteen years of supporting the Iraqi government, our efforts have amounted to pretty much nothing. They have been a failure. The country is a mess. Not because our lofty intentions were amiss, but because Iraq has a history, has a past that is inimical to cooperative co-existence between Shiite and Sunnis, among clans and tribes, between Kurds and Arabs. That Sadaam Hussein during his 24 year long rule exacerbated this strife is unarguable. He did, however, keep the lid on the breakup of the country. But, in the end, these factors still exist, still exert a strong and negative influence on Iraqi society today. It is time for us to rend the ties that bind us to Iraq. Only Iraq, whether tomorrow, whether a decade or a century from today, whether by peaceful or by violent means, can save Iraq from itself. It’s not our fight. It’s no longer our responsibility. The future of Iraq, for better or for worse, lies in the hands of Iraqis.
Have a good day!