May 26th 2015

Who's to Blame for the Mess in Iraq?

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Despite the prolonged US-led coalition bombing campaign, the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) recently won victories in Iraq expanding the area under its control. In the wake of these advances, fingers of blame have been pointing in every direction.  Democrats continue to blame President Bush for beginning the war, in the first place, while Republican candidates are attempting to turn the tables by blaming President Obama for abandoning Iraq. 

What is most disturbing is not the finger pointing, it is the degree to which the pointers have let politics trump history. In reality, Republicans and Democrats both share responsibility for Iraq's dismal state of affairs.  

The initial fault for this mess must be placed at the doorstep of the Bush Administration. They lied us into the war; dismantled Iraq's institutions; and then badly mismanaged the occupation, attempting to restructure the country's governance by introducing a dangerously flawed system of sect-based representation.

But the Obama Administration erred, as well. I agreed with the president when he observed that we needed to end the war in Iraq more responsibly than we began it. He inherited not only the war and the occupation, but an agreement his predecessor had negotiated with the Iraqis requiring US forces to leave at the end of 2011. However, as I noted in early 2009, it wasn't the date we had to leave that was important. More important was what we were going to do in the three years we had left to prepare Iraq for our departure. And, in this, we did not fare well. 

It's important to recall where we and the Iraqi people were in 2011. In September of that year, I was commissioned to do a poll of Iraqi, Iranian, US, and broader Arab public opinion in advance of the US departure. What we sought to learn were how all sides viewed the war and their expectations for Iraq following the US withdrawal. The results were disturbing and foretold the crisis Iraq was to face in the future.  

In the report on the polls' findings I filed three and one-half years ago, here's what I observed: 

Most notable were the deep divisions among Iraq’s three major groupings: Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds. In the United States, there was a significant partisan divide. 

All these patterns played out in response to almost every question asked in the poll. For example, when we asked "are Iraqis better off or worse off than they were before American forces entered the country?" we found that Iraqis were conflicted, with about one-half of both Shia and Sunni Arabs saying that they were “worse off,” while 60% of Kurds said they were “better off.” On the US side, 58% of Republicans said Iraqis were “better off”—completely disconnected from the reality experienced by most Iraqis.  Only 24% of Democrats held this view.  

When we looked more closely at how the war had impacted many areas of life in Iraq, this division amongst the groups in Iraq once again came through quite clearly. Kurds, for example, said their lives had improved in every area considered, while overwhelming majorities of Sunni and Shia Arabs said that conditions had worsened.  

Judging from their respective views, it would appear that Republicans and Democrats were looking at two different realities, with Republicans seeing the war’s impact as positive and Democrats largely judging the war as having made life worse for Iraqis.

Americans and Iraqis were also divided on the prospects of the US withdrawal.  When we asked what emotion they felt when contemplating the departure of US forces, three-quarters of Americans said they were “happy”. But this emotion was shared by only 22% of Iraqis, with another 35% saying they were worried and 30% saying they felt both emotions. And while a majority of Shia Arabs and Kurds were optimistic about the post-occupation future, almost two-thirds of Sunni Arabs were pessimistic. 

The reasons behind this mixed Iraqi mood became clear when we looked more closely at the concerns they had for the post-withdrawal period. Almost six in ten Iraqis said they were concerned that the following would occur: “civil war,” “the country will split into parts,” “increased terrorism,” “economic deterioration,” and the fear that Iraq “may be dominated by a neighboring country.” 

Examining how Iraqis viewed issues close to home was also instructive. Six in ten Iraqis wanted a democracy, but six in ten simply didn’t believe that democracy would work in their country. 

When we asked Iraqis to evaluate their leaders, we found that most were viewed as polarizing figures. Iraqi List coalition leader Iyad Allawi, who had won the 2011 election by a narrow margin, had the best overall rating of any Iraqi political figure receiving strong support from Sunni Arabs and Kurds. He, however, was only viewed favorably by one-fourth of Shia Arabs. Then Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki, was more polarizing receiving support from only 7% of Sunnis and 19% of Kurds. 

So it was that at the end of 2011 America left an Iraq that was deeply divided. After decades of ruthless rule, Iraqis had endured an invasion and occupation, suffered from terror and ethnic cleansing, and while the trappings of a democracy had been set-up, it remained in a gestational state. Iraqis appeared to both want the occupation to end, but had great concerns about what was to follow. In fact, when asked how long they wanted the Americans to stay, most Iraqis responded "as long as your presence is needed". 

The problem for Iraqis was that the American public wanted an end to the war—only 22% were willing to stay "as long as was needed". At the same time, it appeared that while most of Iraq’s Arab neighbors were neither equipped to help, nor would their help have been welcomed, Iran was willing and eager to work with allied parties and militias to fill the vacuum left by the American departure. 

The American people wanted to wash their hands of the situation they were leaving behind, and the American military, exhausted by almost a decade of two failed wars, was not interested in continuing to occupy the country—especially in the absence of a Status of Forces Agreement that would legalize their presence. But even with that, Iraqis had legitimate concerns about the post-withdrawal period, and as we see with the crisis unfolding before us, these concerns were not unfounded.  

By not fully backing the more inclusive candidacy of Iyad Allawi to be Prime Minister, and by deferring instead to Iran's preferred candidate Nouri al Maliki, the seeds of the current sectarian conflict were sown. As it turned out, the dust had barely settled in the wake of U.S. forces departure when al Maliki intensified his crackdown against Sunni Arab leaders, deepening the country’s already substantial sectarian divide.

While American leaders were celebrating the end of the war and speaking glowingly of Iraq's new democracy, signs were pointing to serious problems on the road ahead. This was clear both from events on the ground and also from our poll results.

The bottom line: stop pointing fingers. There's enough blame to go around.

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