Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the city of Ramadi June 19. (CNS photo/Reuters)
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, the second was getting out.
The first of
these blunders was George Bush’s in launching an unjust and unnecessary
war. The second was Barack Obama’s in 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 go on paying in days to
To understand how America got into this fix, a glance at recent history will help.
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 usfruitlessly, to be sureopposed U.S.
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 what’s preemptive
about attacking an enemy who has no intention of attacking you?
too soonand without altering in the least this rejection of the war on
moral groundsthe practical folly of this mistaken adventure also
became obvious. The Iraqis had no previous experience of democracy and
no known taste for it, yet here we were, seeking 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 workexcept for the fact, overlooked or
dismissed by American policy makers, that Iraqi society was radically
divided along sectarian lines. Saddam Hussein had used brutal force to
create unity. But with Saddam gone, the Sunnis and the Shiites could be
counted on to have at each other as soon as they had a chance.
who stood to benefit from that? Who but the anti-American mullahs of
Iran? Meanwhile, the sure loser was to be the Christian community of
Iraqnow, as we see, decimated after eleven bitter years.
debatable whether, once Obama determined to declare victory and get out,
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 trauma of sectarian strife predictably set in. Which,
approximately, is where this story stands now.
After so many
blunders and so much wasted time, this may be one of those situations
where no truly 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 Western 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.
the end, though, the Iraqis must find their way for themselves. That
will probably be ugly, but hardly uglier than the last eleven years. For
certain, the U.S. doesn’t have the answer to Iraq’s problems. But then
it never did.