Friday, December 19, 2014
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Whose fault is latest breakout of Iraq violence?

The breakout of violence and advance of ISIS in Iraq has plenty of folks in Washington pointing fingers. Is the violence President Barack Obama’s fault, for withdrawing troops from that war-torn country too soon? Or perhaps blame can be laid on the George W. Bush administration for launching a war that ended up destabilizing the country?

Who is at fault? What should be done? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk debate the issue.

Ben Boychuk

“Four years ago,” President Obama said in 2012, “I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did. I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11. And we have.”

We did – without victory. We have – with diminishing returns.

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. This is a heavy burden for anyone who ever thought the war was a good idea. The Bush administration carried off a brilliant invasion in 2003, and bungled just about everything else.

Iraq is a bipartisan calamity. The redoubtable David Goldman, who writes as “Spengler” for the Asia Times, noted the other day, “the trouble is both parties wanted the wrong thing to begin with.”

What was that “wrong thing”? 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.

Former Boston University political scientist Angelo Codevilla reflects mordantly in his excellent new (if cumbersomely titled) book, “To Make and Keep Peace Among Ourselves and With Other Nations,” that Americans in Iraq “got killed and maimed on behalf of no objective relevant to Americans’ own peace.”

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.

Joel Mathis

“Victory” – at least as described by my friend Ben – 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. That was our reason for going to war after all. When no such weapons were found, the ability to “win” Iraq became an impossibility; 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 George W. 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 to many of the differences that divided them; 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.

Not that we should get too busy with the blame game. 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 – and woe to any country that tries to exploit the conflict to its own advantage. That way lies quagmire.

All of this should make American officials cautious as they assess the latest developments in Iraq. We’re going to back the Iranian-supported strongman against the Saudi-backed rebels? Why? And why would we do the opposite?

The violence in Iraq is a tragedy. But jumping in now – again – would probably only magnify that tragedy. We’d just be setting ourselves up for another round of finger-pointing and blame-gaming 20 years from now, still imagining victories that never could be won.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@city-journal.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (joelmmathis@gmail.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.

Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis

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