American Folly in Iraq

In 1991, after a stunning invasion led by the late US Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf that routed Iraqi forces from Kuwait and sent Saddam Hussein’s army scurrying back up what became known as the Highway of Death, President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, abruptly stopped coalition forces from pursuing them all the way to Baghdad to topple Saddam.

At the time, it seemed inexplicable. Schwarzkopf’s coalition forces, technologically superior to anything ever seen in modern warfare, could have made it to Baghdad without firing a shot. But Bush and Scowcroft were advised that the country would collapse into warring factions that had the potential to destabilize the entire Middle East.

There is a lesson here for overreaching American governments occupied too much with force and too little with knowledge and diplomacy. Whatever tragedy is unfolding in the Middle East, there are enough unstable situations in Asia, including in the South China Sea and elsewhere, that that the US had better step cautiously, particularly in Afghanistan. Obama does not want to be known as a man who lost two countries.

President Bush’s son, George W Bush, and the Neocons including Vice President Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice refused to heed the possible consequences, invading Iraq in 2003 in a war that lasted nine years, cost 4,500 American lives and an estimated 500,000 Iraqi ones and cost US$4 trillion.

The world is now reaping the whirlwind in a fragmented Iraq increasingly being taken over by arch-fundamentalist Sunnis indulging in the murders of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Shiites. The Bush II administration knew so little about Iraq that they totally misjudged the poisonous stew of religious and cultural forces that Saddam was keeping in check with fiendish brutality.

Two months before the Neocons started the war, the younger Bush didn’t even know there were two major branches of Islam, according to a book by former US Ambassador Peter Galbraith, a seasoned diplomat who helped to negotiate the 1995 end to the Serbo-Croatian War.

President Bush met with three Iraqi Americans, according to Galbraith, who described what they thought would be the political situation after the fall of Saddam. During their conversation with the president, Galbraith claims, it became apparent that Bush was unfamiliar with the distinction between Sunnis and Shiites. Galbraith reported that the three of them spent some time explaining to Bush that there are two major sects in Islam—to which the President allegedly responded, “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!”

Thus the Bush administration missed the information that the schism between Muslim Shiites and Sunnis is as deep and bitter and murderous as was the schism between Christian Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Galbraith, the son of celebrated economist John Kenneth Galbraith, wrote in 2006 with remarkable prescience that the US might have lost the war on the day it took Baghdad in 2003.

“The American servicemen and women who took Baghdad were professionals—disciplined, courteous, and task-oriented,” Galbraith wrote. “Unfortunately, their political masters were so focused on making the case for war, so keen to vanquish their political foes at home, felt certain that Iraqis would embrace American-style democracy, yet they were so blinded by their own ideology that they failed to plan for the most obvious tasks following military victory.”

Desert Storm, the campaign that brought Saddam down and turned him over to his Shiite enemies to be hanged, “will only leave the US with an open-ended commitment in circumstances of uncontrollable turmoil,” Galbraith wrote.” The only possible objective, he wrote, was to avoid a worsening civil war. The Bush administration and the Obama Administration that followed had little taste for doing that.

The problem was that by disbanding the national police and destroying Iraq’s remaining national institutions, (“Stuff happens,” Rumsfeld famously said) there was no longer a country in existence. It reverted to what it was, created artificially by colonial powers with three constituent components: a pro-western Kurdistan, an Iran-dominated Shiite theocracy in the south, and a chaotic Sunni Arab region in the center.

“You cannot have a national unity government when there is no nation, no unity and no government,” Galbraith wrote. “Rather than trying to preserve or hold together a unified Iraq, the US must accept the reality of Iraq’s breakup and work with the Shiites, Kurds, and Sunni Arabs to strengthen the already semi-independent regions.

George H.W. Bush and his advisors knew that, which is arguably why that coalition’s troops stopped short of Baghdad. It is inexplicable why that knowledge never percolated down to his son’s government. The National Security Agency and the CIA obvously knew it, although many Arabists in the defense and intelligence establishment were driven out because they were gay.

As Bush and Scowcroft predicted, the invasion destabilized the entire Middle East, strengthening the Shia ayatollahs in Iran, who immediately started making common cause with their Shia brethren in Baghdad, creating, financing and arming the Shia movements in southern Iraq.

President Barack Obama has now inherited the mess. He apparently comes in for well-deserved criticism for not being sufficiently aggressive in keeping the saddle and bridle on Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and for not arming moderate forces in Syria when the Arab Spring kicked off against Bashir Assad, instead allowing the burgeoning of Islamic extremists, much as they flowered in Afghanistan against the client government of the Russians, which fell in 1989.

Now the Sunnis and Shiites are at each other’s throats, murdering each other with uncommon efficiency. Dick Cheney predictably is arguing for a US return to the country that the Americans liberated in 2003 and thought they had taught parliamentary democracy to. History has taught us that one thing will stop Shiites and Sunnis from murdering each other, and that is the opportunity to murder outsiders.