The United States made a grave mistake by invading Iraq in 2003. Yet it also made a grave mistake by withdrawing its military forces in 2011.
The notion that we were wrong to go in but that we were also wrong to get out is hard to comprehend for many people. Once Americans collectively settled on the idea that the Iraq War was a disaster, it was perhaps inevitable that we’d want to wash our hands of the whole ordeal. President Obama appeared to do just that when he declared in December of 2011 that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” knowing full well that we were doing no such thing. The disaster that is the Iraq War did not end when the last convoy of U.S. combat troops left the country more than three years ago, as many of us are now learning as the fragile Iraqi state loses ground to Sunni extremists.
There are precious few people who’ve been right about Iraq from the start. One of them is Brent Scowcroft, who had served as national security adviser in the first Bush administration. Americans had two big opportunities to listen to Scowcroft on Iraq. We blew both of them.
In August of 2002, as George W. Bush and his allies were building the case for regime change in Iraq, Scowcroft warned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that an attack on Iraq “would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken.” Though Scowcroft was confident that the U.S. could succeed in destroying Saddam’s regime, he was also confident that military action would be expensive and bloody, and that it “very likely would have to be followed by a large-scale, long-term military occupation.” As we all know, Scowcroft’s warning went unheeded by the Bush White House.
Scowcroft offered another warning in America and the World, a widely ignored book published in 2008 that collected a series of exchanges between Scowcroft and his fellow foreign policy wise man Zbigniew Brzezinski. Recognizing that Iraq remained riven by communal conflict, Scowcroft argued that the country would continue to need a U.S. military presence for at least a few more years.
Under Saddam, Iraq’s Shia plurality was subjugated by its Sunni minority. The fear among Sunnis has long been that once the Shias come to power, they would be the victims of all manner of reprisals. A similar dynamic has long been at play in Syria, where the Assad regime, closely tied to the Alawite minority, rules over a Sunni majority. It also played a role in the Bosnian civil war, where various ethnic groups fought desperately to avoid minority status, which many believed would amount to a death sentence.
This desire to escape subjugation has been the central driver of the various Sunni insurgencies that have rocked Iraq for more than a decade. Some Sunni militants seek not just to avoid oppression and brutality at the hands of Shias but to reassert their dominance, often on the grounds that Shias are deviants or apostates. These are the true bitter-enders, for whom no compromise is possible. Most of Iraq’s Sunnis, however, see themselves as essentially defensive in orientation, and willing to lay down their arms if they are promised the right to live in peace. It is only when U.S. officials came to understand the crisis in Iraq as a communal civil war that they knew what they had to do to contain it: reassure the Sunnis that the Shias would do them no harm, if only because U.S. forces would keep Shia sectarianism in check.
As Scowcroft explained to Voice of America News in January of 2012, just weeks after withdrawal was complete, Iraq’s political leadership still needed to learn to make compromises among various ethnic, sectarian, and ideological factions. And in his view, “those compromises are probably easier to make in the embrace of a U.S. presence.” The end of the U.S. presence meant that these compromises were less likely, and that a war of all against all was much more likely.
It is important to emphasize that Scowcroft was not calling for a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq. Rather, he believed that the post-Saddam Iraqi state needed time to get on its feet, and its new elected rulers needed time and breathing room to repair trust among communities that had spent so long at each other’s throats.
So why did the U.S. leave Iraq at the end of 2011? Part of it is that many within the Obama administration simply didn’t believe that U.S. forces would make much of a difference to Iraq’s political future. Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker that “there is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,” and that a U.S. military presence “did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances.”
Rhodes is choosing his words carefully, as there is hardly anyone who would argue that a U.S. military presence would or even could put the U.S. in a position to dictate sectarian alliances. There is no doubt, however, that a military presence gives the U.S. leverage to shape political outcomes. The fundamental question is whether even a small contingent of U.S. troops might have reassured members of Iraq’s minority communities by shielding them from the worst excesses of a Shia-dominated government, thus undermining those calling for its violent overthrow. Without a U.S. presence, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been free to do its worst, up to and including siccing Iraqi security forces on his political rivals. And Maliki’s brutality has, quite predictably, sparked a backlash.
That, of course, leads us to the other reason why U.S. forces were withdrawn: There were many Iraqis, and in particular many Shia Iraqis, who wanted American troops out of the country. Yet as Kimberly and Frederick Kagan have argued, the Obama administration could have done much more to reach an agreement with the Iraqi leadership. Indeed, Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times reported in 2012 that Iraqi lawmakers sensed that the president was ambivalent at best about committing to Iraq, and this made them far less inclined to pay a political price for hammering out a deal.
There are no easy answers as to what the United States should do next in Iraq. The U.S. has so far refused to launch drone strikes in support of the Iraqi government, though the Obama administration might still have a change of heart. Sunni militants are still on the march, and I have to assume that Iraqi Shias are not going to be in a compromising mood in the weeks and months to come. Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution best known for having offered a very hedged, very cautious case for invading Iraq, has recommended that the U.S. government use Maliki’s desperation to its advantage by promising Iraq the military support it needs in exchange for sweeping political reform designed to create a more inclusive Iraqi government. But one wonders what might have happened had we listened to Scowcroft—had we kept a residual U.S. military force in Iraq to prevent this nightmare from having occurred in the first place.