“Sovereignty, in political theory, is a substantive term designating supreme authority over some polity.”
John McCain, who still can’t believe voters thwarted his Commander-in-Chief aspirations six years ago, appearing on MSNBC this morning, blamed President Obama for what is happening in Iraq:
What about the fact we had it won?…Gen. Petraeus had the conflict won, thanks to the surge. And if we had left a residual force behind…we would not be facing the crisis we are today. Those are fundamental facts … The fact is, we had the conflict won and we had a stable government…But the president wanted out, and now, we are paying a very heavy price. And I predicted it in 2011.
This blame-Obama-first reaction we all expect from Republicans whenever anything at all goes wrong, but it is utterly and demonstrably false in this case. Republicans forget that the original agreement with the Iraqis to pull out of their country was signed by none other than George W. Bush in 2008, an agreement that specified we would “withdraw from all Iraqi territory, waters, and airspace no later than the 31st of December of 2011.” We did withdraw in December of 2011. So, how all the latest developments are Obama’s fault is beyond me, but not surprising, given the level of hatred for the president among right-wingers.
What seems surprising to me, though, is McCain’s “we had it won” claim, which is beyond ridiculous. George Bush famously thought we had it won when he spoke on board the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him, saying,
In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.
Yeah, well, people should remember that most of the dead and wounded became dead and wounded after those infamous words. Bush also told us in that 2003 speech:
The Battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001, and still goes on…The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We have removed an ally of al-Qaida, and cut off a source of terrorist funding.
Leave aside that lie about the Iraqis being “an ally of al-Qaida”—former CIA Director George Tenet took care of that by admitting that the Bushies “could never verify there was any Iraqi authority, direction and control, complicity with al-Qaida for 9/11 or any operational act against America, period”—and focus only on the claim of victory, a claim that was not only unsupported by the evidence at the time, but a claim that could never have come true under any circumstances. Obviously, in terms of defeating the Iraqi military and putting ourselves into a position of occupying the country, we were successful. That’s what we are good at. We are the best. The Iraqi army, knowing we are the best, didn’t really fight, and the much-vaunted Republican Guard decided they weren’t going to die, 72 virgins or no 72 virgins, for their fellow tribesman, Saddam Hussein.
But that U.S. military triumph wasn’t the real victory that the Bush and his neo-conservative allies envisioned when they undertook the very stupid and very costly war against Hussein’s Baathist regime. In their heads were “the images of celebrating Iraqis,” as Bush noted in his celebratory speech, grateful folks who would welcome us with open arms for liberating them from “their own enslavement.” But Iraq as we knew it then and Iraq as we know it now was and is never going to be a place where, in Bush’s words on that aircraft carrier eleven years ago, we could “stand with the new leaders of Iraq as they establish a government of, by, and for the Iraqi people.”
For his part, President Obama, although much more restrained, said some things to Americans in 2011 about the end of the eight-year-long Iraq war that don’t sound so good today:
It’s harder to end a war than begin one. Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering — all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.
So much for a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq. This morning I heard Iraq’s ambassador to the United States essentially begging for more help from Americans, dismissing the fact that his country’s Shia leader, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, failed to reach a deal with the Obama administration on a status of forces agreement that would have kept, perhaps unwisely for us, thousands of U.S. troops in his country. But worst than that, Maliki failed to govern the divided country in a way that had any chance of success. He did nothing to make sure the rights of the Sunni minority were protected. In fact, as Vox.com noted, he ordered the mass-arrest of Sunni civilians and the killing of peaceful Sunni protesters. He essentially “built a Shia sectarian state.” All of which allowed a violent Sunni insurgency to grow and strengthen.
As I said, it was the subsequent occupation of Iraq that cost us so much in lives and treasure. And it was during that occupation, if not before, where all of us should have realized that there would never be anything happen in Iraq that we could call a victory and truly claim mission accomplished. Patrick Cockburn, who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 and who has written four books on the contemporary history of Iraq, said of the American occupiers that we “were in a mood of exaggerated imperial arrogance” and failed to see what was coming:
In that first year of the occupation it was easy to tell which way the wind was blowing. Whenever there was an American soldier killed or wounded in Baghdad, I would drive there immediately. Always there were cheering crowds standing by the smoking remains of a Humvee or a dark bloodstain on the road. After one shooting of a soldier, a man told me: “I am a poor man but my family is going to celebrate what happened by cooking chicken.” Yet this was the moment when President Bush and his Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, were saying that the insurgents were “remnants of the old regime” and “dead enders”.
Cockburn also makes an important point that it wasn’t just Americans who were willfully blind about the nature of the Iraqi state: “There was also misconception among Iraqis about the depth of the divisions within their own society.” Objective outsiders should have seen that Iraq is not a real country. Force has held it together since the British (without going into why, but it had a lot to do with oil) first tried to weld into one country the old Ottoman-controlled provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. Keeping these people, the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shias, under one nation-state roof has proved to be impossible without lots and lots of oppression and killing. And the killing continues today, as we see in the news.
Leaving aside all of the Republican nonsense about blaming Obama for the ongoing disintegration of Iraq, the question, obviously, is what should the U.S. do now? And that, like almost all foreign policy questions, is not John McCain-simple. I have heard some people, including some Democrats, say do nothing. Let the Iraqis handle their own problems. But as President Obama said today, “Nobody has an interest in seeing terrorists gain a foothold inside of Iraq and nobody is going to benefit from seeing Iraq descend into chaos. The United States will do our part.”
Okay. Let’s start with what might be part of a long-term strategy. It appears to be time to reconsider Joe Biden’s old proposal, which he made while still a U.S. senator in 2007. Biden sponsored an amendment to a defense bill, which passed the Senate 75-23, that James Oliphant, no friend of Democrats or progressives, summarized this way:
The amendment requires the United States to work to support the division of Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions, each governed locally by its dominant ethnic and religious factions, the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. The regions would have dominion over police protection, jobs, utilities and other municipal functions, supported by a weaker federal government in Baghdad. All three regions would share in the country’s oil revenues.
The wisdom of that difficult-to-implement proposal only increases with time. It appears to be the only realistic solution, if there is a solution, to an otherwise insoluble problem. But that is a possible long-term solution. For now, while a rather violent and venomous group of jihadists are capturing Iraqi cities one by one and headed for Baghdad—due to, once again, widespread desertion by the “national” army—we can’t stand by and do nothing. We do have a national interest in making sure, as best we can without engaging in another war, that the utterly brutal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which, as The Washington Post points out, now “effectively governs a nation-size tract of territory,” does not take over the entire place.
The Post also says the militant Islamic group “has become a far more lethal, effective and powerful force than it was when U.S. forces were present in Iraq,” and quotes a former adviser to both Bush and Obama on Iraq:
This is a force that is ideologically motivated, battle hardened and incredibly well equipped. It also runs the equivalent of a state. It has all the trappings of a state, just not an internationally recognized one.
Just what effective actions the U.S. could take in the short-term isn’t clear to me. But it isn’t clear to war-hawk John McCain either. For all his bluster, he is reduced to saying there are “no good options.” Yeah, well, thanks for that sage advice, Senator. And, thank God or Allah, you are still only a senator.
Sharing intelligence with the Iraqi government, such as it is, is obviously a good place to start. Perhaps drone strikes and other air attacks are in order. Perhaps other forms of aid will do some good. But one thing we know, despite what the logic of John McCain’s criticisms entails,
We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.
Those are the words of, thankfully, the real Commander in Chief.