So now that we’re out, what did we accomplish?
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Iraqi sectarian violence has been increasing since the beginning of 2011, but hasn’t yet reached the levels of 2006-2007. In October, Kurdish PKK members fought a cross-border incursion by Turkish forces. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is apparently willing to increase military action in northern Iraq to defeat the Kurds and extend Turkey’s power. And then there is Iran.
Iran’s power over Iraq, largely exerted directly through Moqtada al-Sadr, is sufficient to control Iraq’s future. Iran’s interest is to keep Iraq unstable, and that is a low bar over which to leap.
WE HAVE ACCOMPLISHED much in Iraq. Saddam is gone and a democracy of sorts is in power. Much of the nation is—for the moment—secure and Iraq’s military and security forces are as well trained as they can be. But for all the good we’ve done in Iraq, the illusion that is Iraq remains. General Petraeus always said that our accomplishments were fragile and reversible. They are as fragile as the idea that Iraq is a nation, and they will be reversed as quickly as Iran, Turkey, and others can make them disappear.
In a televised discussion with an Iraqi parliamentarian about four years ago, I warned that Iraq could cease to be a nation after American forces withdrew. He disagreed vehemently. He said, as I recall, that the sky will always be blue, the grass will always be green, and Iraq will always be Iraq.
The gentleman was wrong and profoundly so. The Kurds could be a nation if the Turks permitted them to be, but they will not. The Sunni in central Iraq could be a part of Syria or even Saudi Arabia, if Iran permitted it, but Iran won’t. And the Shia in central and southern Iraq could be absorbed by Iran, but that too would not be more permanent than the historical Arab-Persian enmity.
As we leave Iraq, its politicians and its neighbors are positioning themselves for the next round of conflict. The Shia are spreading fear that a successful revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian dictatorship could be the precursor of a more aggressive Sunni Syrian attack on Iraq. It’s the sort of message Iran would send, seeking a Syrian Chamberlain to surrender some Iraqi Sudetenland to them. Nouri al-Maliki’s hold on power is tenuous, and Turkey’s Erdogan is glancing at Kurdish terrorists and oil fields with a jaundiced eye.
For America, there is no reason to stay in Iraq any longer. We have done what we could in pursuit of Bush and Obama’s wrong-headed nation-building strategy, and in that we have failed.
Nation-building is a sort of laboratory experiment, something of a board game to be taught at a foreign policy school. When we have tried it, wherever we have tried it, we have assumed that nation-building is something that can be done within a nation’s borders. That was true in post-war Japan and Germany because no other nation had the power to interfere effectively. Just the opposite is true in Iraq.
Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan can be built as a democracy for two reasons. Just as Iraq is a concatenation of neighbors without a uniting nationalism, the Afghan nation arises only in resistance to foreign invasion. And just as in Iraq, Afghanistan’s neighbors will not let pass the chance to prevent it from becoming a democracy.
America’s definable enemies — the nations that sponsor Islamic terrorism — have been fortunate that we have sunk in the self-imposed quagmire of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. By choosing to fight their proxies instead of them, we have not moved closer to victory but away from it. As we leave Iraq, the picture in our rearview mirror is dimly lit with fleeting images of purple-thumbed voters, victims of street bombings, and the smiling visage of Moqtada al-Sadr.
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