When Mao Zedong largely completed his Communist takeover of China in 1949, Americans asked, ‘Who lost China?’ The implication was that up until that point the Free World or the United States ‘had’ China: that it was theirs to lose.
In the event, a few China hands in particular were made the scapegoats for the failure of the Kuomintang to hold on to China on behalf of Washington or Wall Street or whatever. On Owen Lattimore’s and Jack Service’s shoulders were heaped the responsibility for Chiang Kai-Shek’s inability to force all of China to support him. Lattimore and Service were hounded, especially by Senator Joe McCarthy.
Today the American President, Barack Obama, is accused of losing Iraq. His opponents would accuse him of causing sunburn on a sunny weekend, and this week he is the new Owen Lattimore or Jack Service.
The implication is that by 2008 the United States and its coalition partners had turned Iraq from an inimical dictatorship to a friendly democracy, and that President Obama’s unseemly haste in bringing American forces home in the following years resulted in this month’s takeover of Iraq’s Sunni areas by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS).
The assumptions underlying the ‘Obama lost Iraq’ narrative are:
- Invading Iraq in 2003 and hanging Saddam Hussein were in service of vital US national interests;
- The US could have retained a significant land-based military presence in Iraq against the will of the Iraqi government post-2012;
- A US land force presence in Iraq would have made it easier rather than more difficult for the US to support anti-Assad elements in Syria, and in doing so would have kept the Sons of Iraq from becoming radicalised as they participated in two years’ operations against Assad supported by America’s Gulf Arab allies;
- The presence of US forces in realistic numbers would have kept the Sons of Iraq from turning back into the Islamic State in Iraq (and al-Shams) during their sojourn in Syria;
- Continuing to prop up the Maliki government in Iraq is a vital US national interest; and
- A significant presence of US land forces would have prevented the success of ISIS at displacing the Iraqi government’s authority over the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq.
The last assumption is a sound one. The rest are based on imagined scenarios that are difficult to credit.
The fact is that the US created a fictitiously stable Iraq by the age-old method of propping up a local strongman, Nouri al-Maliki. The US did so because it had worn out its welcome within months of toppling the old strongman, Saddam Hussein.
The US left Iraq because it could. The presence of US forces once Saddam was gone, the propping-up of Nouri al-Maliki’s government; all that was in service of no particular vital US national interest. Had the US been equipped to re-fashion an Iraqi state through lavish expenditures of money and human resources (as the US did in Germany after the Second World War) it might have been different. It wasn’t.
The US refrained from dumping Ducky Assad from power because it didn’t have to. Assad was a generally compliant local bully who ran a filthy but stable regime. Dumping him from power, or even trying to dump him from power, would have and has resulted in much worse effects for the Syrian people and their neighbours. Putting American soldiers into that mix would have made it worse, not better.
If the US had kept two or three divisions in Iraq, the temptation to use American combat power to depose Assad might have been stronger, but giving in would also have validated the narrative that the US had invaded Iraq not to depose Saddam Hussein but to use Iraq as a base to throw its weight around the region. Fighting Assad without an American interest at stake would also have been a poor use of blood and treasure.
Iraq’s Kurds had a functioning semi-state before the invasion, and since then the semi-state has functioned at a higher and better level. When a Shia-majority government in Baghdad took power the Kurds were largely untouched. The Sons of Iraq, the armed Sunni militias who were co-opted for a short time into the Iraqi security apparatus, were a fig leaf which permitted the US to believe that the Sunni sheikhs had been pacified. Since the Americans left the fig leaf has fluttered away.
For a time the Sunni sheikhs in Iraq were interested in rejecting al-Qaeda influence, knew they had to work with the US occupation forces to reconstruct their tribes and knew that the best way their young men could be rescued from the shame of the Iraqi Army’s capitulation was to arm them to defend their tribes. Also, they were lavishly paid. This was the basis of the Anbar Awakening; a conversion of the Sunni clans who had been loyal to Saddam and who had then been loyal to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, to loyalty to the new Iraqi government.
Abd ul-Sattar abu Risha was an early leader of the Awakening, assassinated for his willingness to support the Maliki government. His brother Ahmed abu Risha still leads the rump of the Anbar Awakening, which has declared its continued loyalty to the Maliki government.
The paymasters of the Anbar Awakening shifted their objectives. When they were interested in getting the Americans out of the region they paid the Sunni sheikhs to keep their young men at home, giving lip service to Maliki. When they were interested in deposing the Alawite unbeliever Bashar al-Assad they paid the Sunni sheikhs to send their young men to fight in Syria. The same paymasters seem content to let the Sunni sheikhs rule as ISIS.
Some lament that towns which had been liberated from Sunni insurgent militias with American blood are now ‘falling’ to a Sunni insurgent militia. The soil of the Sunni Triangle was sanctified with American blood, and that blood is degraded if the Sunni Triangle ceases to be ruled by … the high-handed and autocratic Nouri al-Maliki who sent the US packing.
The blood spilt in Fallujah and Ramadi and fifty other towns did not sanctify the soil. Those towns are just towns. They were handed over to their ancient clans who continue to rule them now.
In 1991 and again in 2003 the US, UK and coalition partners invaded Iraq to ensure that Saddam Hussein did not have his hand on the tap controlling a significant proportion of the world’s available hydrocarbon reserves. The US is far more relaxed about hydrocarbons now that it draws from a far more diverse source base. The continued high price of oil has made exploitation of shale in Canada and the US economically viable, and that has made Iraq’s output less significant.
Moreover, the idea of buying oil from devout Sunni sheikhs is something the West is used to. If ISIS doesn’t under-produce, doesn’t over-produce and doesn’t impede the flow of oil through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, then there isn’t all that much at stake.
The ISIS has potential to be a regional problem, and that is important to other states in the region. Iran, which aspires to regional superpower status, has cause for concern. Israel, which has enjoyed a few years’ respite in which Iraq has expressed little anti-Israel sentiment, has cause for concern. Turkey, which may have precipitated a full breakup of Iraq and the creation of a Kurdish state on its border, has cause for concern. The US? Not so much.
So who lost Iraq? American conservative pundits are ready to dump that question and its opprobrium on President Obama. They wilfully miss the point that trying to get Iraq in the first place wasn’t a good move, that staying there had become impossible, and that going back would do nobody any good.