Special Report

A Bang or a Whimper in Iraq?

Maliki pleads for U.S. re-engagement.

By 11.4.13


The New York Times editorial page is in the habit of giving anti-American leaders space to send messages to — but to whom? First it was Vladimir Putin, explaining to us how we were both arrogant in thinking ourselves as exceptional and stupid in regard to the Middle East — Syria in particular. Now it is Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s turn, telling us by way of the same page that notwithstanding his total lack of gratitude for saving his neck and his country, we should give him a few billion dollars in advanced weaponry to fight terrorists who, he generously allows, “aren’t just Iraq’s enemies. They are also America’s enemies.” He goes on to say that he wants a deeper relationship with the U.S., “our security partner of choice,” seeing as how “Iraq today is no longer a protectorate,” but rather, dixit President B. Obama, a country with whom we (Americans) have “a normal relationship based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”

It would be of some interest to know what flak on K Street wrote this, as a detail in the chronicle of the moral rot in our own country, but what is of more immediate importance, of course, is how our foreign policy leadership responds to prime minister, if that is the word — I thought Arab strongmen were called rai — Maliki’s contemptuous message. Make no mistake, whatever he says about mutual respect, this is a sign of how poorly we are regarded by Arabs. Maliki needs help because he is desperate. His security forces are unable to contain a fresh offensive by his enemies. The violence in Iraq, reportedly claiming as many as 7,000 lives per month, is rapidly reaching the levels of 2006, when it appeared our intervention was turning into a fiasco. Maliki can opt for a different protectorate, but in his heart (and mind) he knows being under a Persian gauleiter will make him long for the days when Americans were around..

Instead of just admitting he cannot hack it, the Iraqi rai is asking for arms, surveillance drones and their attendant advisors, and a stratospheric investment in his country’s oil industry. He is broad-minded, however, so he assures us there will be no need for American boots on the ground.

This might be viewed as diplomatic flattery: a day before meeting President Obama, he could scarcely ask for a reversal of the key difference between the Obama and Bush policies in Iraq. George Bush, this is for historians to judge eventually, may have been grandly and profoundly mistaken about how to fight terrorism overseas, how to reform the Middle East, and how to with Iraq in particular -- but it was under his watch that we licked the terrorists in Iraq.

This is the view of David Petraeus, who recently published a timely essay in Foreign Policy, “How We Won in Iraq,” the thesis of which is that the Bush “surge,” which General Petraeus organized and carried out (seconded and eventually succeeded by General Ray Odierno), did what it was designed to do. It destroyed al Qaeda in Iraq and put an end to the civil war that had broken out in the years following our invasion in 2003. By 2006, this war was claiming the lives of thousands of American soldiers trying to maintain order in a lawless country. Petraeus reminds us that, “[w]ith well over 50 attacks and three car bombs per day on average in Baghdad alone, the plan to hand off security tasks to Iraqi forces clearly was not working.… Life in many areas of the capital and the county was about little more than survival.”

Petraeus goes on the explain that the surge required both more American power (our troop level was increased by 30,000) and new ideas; actually, entirely new ideas. The core here was: “the human terrain — the people — and our most important mission was to improve their security.”

Instead of basing American and Coalition forces in large fortified encampments away from ordinary Iraqis, Petraeus deployed them in small neighborhood outposts: “we had to ‘live with people’ in order to secure them,” he writes.

What Petraeus advocated was revolutionary war. He wanted, to borrow a famous metaphor, our side to be as fish in water, and to convince the Iraqi masses, Sunni and Shiite both, that they had a future in joining the revolution, or at least in trusting the revolutionaries.

To do this, the general and his staff (he gives much credit to British fellow officers) had to establish, maintain, and spread areas of security. They knew, however, they could not do this only with more cops walking the mean streets of Baghdad, so to speak. They also needed, at a minimum, two other programs. One of these was the deliberate and systematic decapitation of the terrorist leadership (he does not get into specifics, but one may hazard the guess that this involved killing not only al-Qaeda-in-Iraq operatives but also Shiite and Sunni extremists who could not be otherwise persuaded to join the revolution).

The “targeted special operations” were successful, probably in large part due to the third leg in the surge: the promotion of “reconciliation” among Iraq’s warring religious communities and tribes (and clans within them). This was not a matter of getting mortal enemies together and engaging in the sort of mediation that a society such as ours takes for granted. It was, rather, a matter of getting enemies into a room at the same time and giving them a choice they could not refuse: you play with one another, and with us, or we kill you.

To a remarkable degree, it worked. Surely, the language used by General Petraeus and his advisors, in talking to Iraqis, was likely far more formal and diplomatic, but the message was clear: you have more to gain by joining the party than by fighting it.

The famous “Sunni Awakening” and the development of the “Sons of Iraq” militia among Sunni — turning tribal warlords into statesmen in the former case and making cops out of gunmen in the latter — were key components of the surge. They gave the Shiite-dominated government allies among the Sunni, without whom it could not have imposed its authority and restored order, let alone claimed to speak for an “Iraqi nation.” Without these developments, the surge would have been little more than a temporary military success. And they occurred because Petraeus was able to cajole, threaten, entice, and bribe a large enough number of Sunni, awaken them, in effect, to the advantages of joining the new Iraq.

It was a brilliant and, in the short term, winning strategy. Iraq really was much calmer by 2011, when American fighting troops left, in keeping with Barack Obama’s electoral promise to end the war he had always opposed. Al Qaeda really seemed to have been beaten, we were going to now concentrate on turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy free of Taliban thugs, and the march of political enlightenment throughout the Middle East was bound to continue.

Unfortunately, matters took a different turn, as radical, politicized Islam went into a surge of its own at just about this time, bringing chaos and violence throughout the region. Petraeus is thus quite right to say that if Iraqis want to avoid relapsing into the horrors of 2006-08, they should revisit the ideas that contributed to the success of the original surge. But is this possible, or is it merely wistful thinking?

A reconciliation that lasted scarcely more than three years is, to be quite truthful about it, more accurately described as a temporary truce between gangs still committed to wiping the floor with one another. The Bush surge (Gen. Petraeus gives the former president full credit for making the operation possible) could only work if it was designed to keep going indefinitely. Our democracy and the Iraqis’, however, produced leaders who had short-term interests in bidding each other farewell, hope I never see you again. The vacuum was filled in short order; actually, it would not be far-fetched, but it is for another day, to consider that the whole disastrous “Arab Spring” was encouraged, if not deep-caused (let us give them at least some credit) by our fickle policy of abandonment. For say what you will about the merits of the concept of going to war not to win on the battlefield but to effect regime change, the really crazy thing is to go to war, spend a couple trillion dollars and four thousand five hundred American lives, and then say we gave it the old college try.

MAYBE BARACK OBAMA was right: Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time. The judgment of history may some day come down in his favor, though I for one am not waiting because in the Arab crescent, the judgment of history is something that recurrently is about to come down and then evaporates like a mirage. We have tried just about everything in the Middle East since Roosevelt’s fateful meeting with the head of the house of Saud during World War II, and we keep repeating ourselves. We cajole, we bully, we intervene, we lay off, and repeat. We support strong men in the name of stability, and democracy in the name of our values and the Arab peoples’ better interests. Every single argument for doing this, that, or the other thing since we declared war on Islamic terrorism — rather, since we very belatedly acknowledged that it had declared war on us — has been regularly pulled out of some filing cabinet in the State Department or the DoD since the 1940s, and — if it matters — we can find the very same cycle of carrot, stick, love, and hate, in the archives of French and British foreign and war ministries since at least the 19th century.

But if this is the case, if it is the case that there it is an illusion to think democratic regimes can reach any sort of understanding with the Arabs outside of straight up cash-and-carry, what can be done? We need their oil (at least for a few more years.) We cannot abide their development of weapons of mass destruction (for as many years as we want civilization as we know it to survive.) And yes, we do in fact care for the well-being of the peoples of the Middle East and we are on record as being “the friends of liberty everywhere.”

What the president could have, should have, might have said to the rai is of little consequence, since he did not say it. He reportedly said he would study the requests for money, military equipment, and the rest, and mumbled something about “inclusive” politics, which one supposes is his way of asking Maliki to be nicer to the Sunni. Which why should he be? There are today in Iraq none of General Petraeus’ “reconciliation task forces” urging Sunni and Shiite leaders to consider the consequences of not playing by the new rules.

But for the record, or for the unlikely benefit of future policy makers re-inventing the wheel again, it is mildly pleasing (when not frustrating) to imagine him saying something along the lines of what John Adams might have said. We are willing to be friends, sir, and we wish your people prosperity and freedom, but we cannot do anything about it, certainly not until you give us some evidence of your good faith. Have you done anything useful for us lately? Have you stood up to the Persians or tried to stop the bloodletting on your northern doorstep or tried to make peace with your southern neighbors or our friends to your west? When are you going to speak out for reconciliation between Jews and Muslims in your region? If we cannot expect any such initiatives from you, I must tell you that what we can do, and will do, is secure our own people’s safety. If that means pre-emptive strikes against those of your compatriots and neighbors who wish us dead, you may be sure they will come, and that this is the only warning they will get.

Barack Obama missed a chance, again, to be what he claimed he was aiming for, a truly transformational president. The Iraqi rai’s presence in Washington last week could have been an opportunity for a major American statement on the Middle East, and it would have been fitting for it to be short, understated, and blunt. Driven as he is by a sense that America is a principal cause for the world’s troubles, and the troubles of Muslims in particular, seeking approval and friendship from them that they will never give him, Barack Obama can neither conceptualize nor implement a consequential policy in Iraq or the Middle East.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.