Who Lost Iraq? And What We Can Do about It

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
Eventually the question will be asked— "Who lost Iraq?" In a way it might be seen as an improper question to ask since it presumes that Iraq was ours to lose. The fact that it was not, however, doesn't absolve us of responsibility. We have badly bungled Iraq from the beginning. Our invasion was irresponsible, our occupation and administration of the country were disastrous, and our departure, though necessary, left too many critical issues unresolved. What should also be clear is that no one is blameless.   

The Iraq war was conceived in sin. It was based on the lies of the Bush Administration, the most notorious of which were not about "weapons of mass destruction." More dangerous were the fabricated projections they presented about how: the war would last only a few weeks and our presence would end in six months; it would only cost one to two billion dollars; our soldiers would be greeted as "liberators" with flowers at their feet; and Iraq's new democracy would be "a beacon for the new Middle East."       

Early on, in October of 2003, when we our first poll of Iraqi opinion was released showing that Iraqis were dissatisfied with our behavior and wanted us to leave, the Bush Administration again lied. They tried to spin the poll into good news about how we were winning and the war was going well. 

By 2005-6, it was clear we were in a worse mess than we had ever imagined. The crimes of Abu Ghraib had shocked the world, laying waste to American honor, sectarian strife had devastated Iraqi society creating waves of refugees and internally displaced persons, and both Arab and American public opinion had decided that "enough was enough." Back then, the American debate was waged between two poles: one which called for US forces to double-down, and the other which envisioned an immediate withdrawal. 

It was then that Congress commissioned the "Iraq Study Group", led by our most senior statesmen, to find a way forward. The ISG report was highly anticipated. When it was released, it was largely ignored. The Bush Administration cherry-picked the parts they liked, ignoring recommendations they didn't like. The result was to consolidate Iraq's sectarian divide while reinforcing the country's corrupt sect-based leadership.

Toward the end of the Bush Administration, the US negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government requiring US forces to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011. It was this agreement that President Obama was forced to implement.

During the 2008 campaign candidate Obama had rejected calls to simply abandon Iraq, insisting that the US must be "as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in." The date for withdrawal had been set by the SOFA, and the Iraqi government insisted that it be honored. But the challenge facing the Administration was not the date we were to leave, but what they were to do before the date marking the end of the US military presence in Iraq.

One of the ISG recommendations that Bush had refused to implement was the establishment of a regional security framework. This required the participation of all the regional stakeholders: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, and Iran. While many of the participants might have objected, all had an interest in and a role to play in Iraq's stability. Moreover, many of these principals were already involved in Iraq, in ways designed to protect their own interests. The key reason behind convening them was that it would be better to have them sitting around a table working above board then to have them manipulating events under the table. This was not done, with neither Bush nor Obama accepting the challenge. 

In a wide-ranging poll we conducted in Iraq toward the end of 2011, the concerns of the Iraqi people were clear. They were deeply divided about our presence and our withdrawal. The majority Shi'a constituency wanted us out, but majorities among both the Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities were concerned that with our departure they would be vulnerable and at risk. Their biggest fears were that with our departure their country would explode in civil war, would divide along sectarian lines, and would become dominated by Iran.

We had early warnings of what was to come. Nevertheless, at the end of 2011, we left Iraq in the hands of a sectarian and increasingly autocratic government. In the absence of any regional security arrangement, the Maliki government became more closely allied with Iranian interests, increasingly alienating its Sunni Arab and Kurdish constituencies, setting the stage for where we are today.

It is just plain wrong for hawkish critics of the Obama Administration to argue that "we never should have left Iraq." They conveniently forget that we were obliged to do so by the Bush Administration's negotiated SOFA. And it is equally wrong for doves to argue that Iraq is none of our business. Whether we like it or not, we have become part of Iraq's history. Our war and occupation have created a responsibility. After all the lives lost and the treasure spent, we cannot simply abandon the country.

That said, the US should not commit force or political capital in support of the Maliki government. His sectarian policies are the reason why Iraq is imploding. The way forward is to implement the last piece of the ISG report and convene the regional powers in an effort to address both the situations in Iraq and Syria. Both have become connected— and not just because the ISIS has a base in both areas. Equally important is the fact that Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey all have direct interests in the outcomes of these conflicts. No one can afford further deterioration. And all must recognize that, in the end, a continuation of the fighting can only lead to greater destabilization and greater extremism. Given the realities of both Iraq and Syria, there can be "no victor or vanquished." A new order must be found that secures the rights of all citizens in both countries.

Maliki and Assad may see things differently, but they are leading their respective countries to greater conflict and ruin. Only a regional peace arrangement can end this downward spiral, and only intense US political, and if necessary military, pressure, can help to find a way out of this situation. The President is right to insist that he will not commit to the use of force without a plan. But he should not hesitate to use force to back up a plan that will convene a conference that would invest regional powers in support of an effort that would bring an end to Iraq and Syria's long nightmares.    

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