Blunders, Failures, and Wasted Time in Iraq

The U.S. doesn’t have the answer to Iraq’s problems, and it never did

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 come.

To understand how America got into this fix, a glance at recent history will help.

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 what’s preemptive about attacking an enemy who has no intention of attacking you?

All too soon—and without altering in the least this rejection of the war on moral grounds—the 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 work—except 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.

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 of Iraq—now, as we see, decimated after eleven bitter years.

It is 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.

In 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.

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About Russell Shaw 288 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).