Starting in 2003, the United States has made two fundamental mistakes in Iraq, both with strong moral implications. At the risk of oversimplification, they can be summed up like this: The first mistake was going into Iraq, and the second was getting out.
The first of these blunders was George Bush’s for launching an unjust and unnecessary war. The second was Barack Obama’s for pulling out before authentic stability had been restored in a country the U.S. had done so much to destabilize. By now we’ve paid heavily for both mistakes. Absent a fresh look at what we’re doing, we are likely to keep on paying in days to come.
To understand how America got into this fix, a glance at recent history is in order.
Turn back the clock to early 2003. In the face of mounting war fever, whipped up by the White House over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, some of us — fruitlessly, to be sure — opposed U.S. military action.
At that time, my own opposition was exclusively moral. Iraq simply didn’t meet the criteria for a just war. The Iraqis hadn’t attacked us and weren’t about to do so. On what grounds, then, were we proposing to attack them? Preemptive war? But where’s the preemption in attacking an enemy who has no intention of attacking you?
All too soon — without in the least altering this rejection of the war on moral grounds — the practical folly of this mistaken adventure became clear. The Iraqis had no previous experience of democracy and no known taste for it, yet here we were, attempting to impose a democratic system on them in the mistaken belief they would fall in love with it and make it work.
Even so, it was barely possible that the U.S.-imposed solution would work — except for the fact, overlooked or dismissed by American policy makers, that Iraqi society was radically divided along sectarian lines. Saddam Hussein had employed brutal force to create an appearance of unity. But with Saddam gone, the Sunnis and the Shiites could be counted on to fight it out as soon as they had a chance.
And who stood to benefit from that? Who but the anti-American mullahs of Iran? Meanwhile, the sure loser was to be the Christian community in Iraq — now, as we see, decimated after 11 bitter years.
Once Obama determined to declare victory and get out, it is debatable whether or not the U.S. could have left a residual military force behind to protect the feckless Iraqi regime from the consequences of its own mistakes. In any case, the Iraqis wanted no part of that. And so we left. In due course, the predictable trauma of sectarian strife set in. Which, approximately, is where the story stands now.
After so many blunders and so much wasted time, this may be one of those situations where no thoroughly good option exists. The centerpiece of American policy in Iraq from here on out must be the Hippocratic maxim “Do no harm” — no more, that is, than we’ve already done. Beyond that, America has interests it needs to protect including access to Iraqi oil and resisting the spread of Islamist terrorism. The sorry state of the Christian minority should also be an object of serious U.S. concern.
In the end, though, the Iraqis must find their way themselves. It will probably be ugly, but hardly uglier than the last 11 years. For certain, the U.S. doesn’t have the answer to Iraq’s problems. In fact it never did.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.