President Obama said al-Qaida was on the path to defeat. Osama bin Laden may have been dead, but the president’s words were empty. The war certainly wasn’t over for the people actually fighting it – the Sunnis and the Shia slaughtering each other, as they have done off and on for centuries.
But let’s face it: The sectarian crisis unfolding across Iraq isn’t Obama’s disaster entirely or even mostly. The war was a mistake from the outset.
The Bush administration carried off a brilliant invasion in 2003, and bungled just about everything else. Republicans and Democrats alike thought the United States could make a nation out of messy Mesopotamia. They blithely assumed Iraqis wanted democracy, unity and progress – that these were “universal values.”
But instead of making Iraq safe for democracy, we made it safe for sectarian violence, corruption, and Iranian influence. We didn’t even get the oil. About the best that may be said of postwar Iraq is that Kurdistan may finally achieve independence and stability in the midst of this chaos.
Let it be a lesson to future U.S. presidents who may contemplate war: “Victory” isn’t an abstraction and it mustn’t be an afterthought. If you’re going to ask Americans to sacrifice blood and treasure, for God’s sake fight to win. No more nation building.
“Victory” actually is an abstraction. Let’s get concrete: What would victory during America’s war in Iraq have actually looked like?
There’s an easy answer to this: We would have intercepted and ended Saddam Hussein’s programs to build weapons of mass destruction. When no such weapons were found, the ability to “win” Iraq became an impossibility, and everything that happened after merely an attempt to salvage a world-historical blunder. You can’t really be victorious over a mirage.
Nonetheless, there are many hawks who assert that America did win in Iraq – that it occurred after the “surge” in American troops helped largely pacify the violent country during President Bush’s last two years in office. But that’s wrong: The surge was supposed to buy time for Iraq’s Sunni and Shia factions to work out political settlements; that didn’t happen.
The peace bought by American troops (and their temporary allies in the “Sunni Awakening”) was thus short-lived. The violence we’re seeing now has been inevitable for years.
Sunni and Shia have been at odds, mostly, for more than 1,000 years. It’s not the United States’ fault that the two sides tend to be antagonistic. But woe to this or any other country that thinks it can suddenly solve conflicts a millennia in the making. That way lies quagmire.