Dexter Filkins assigns three reasons for the continuing disintegration of a country destroyed by the US invasion and occupation. The first two are the sectarian implosion in Syria and the sectarian authoritarianism of Nouri al-Maliki. But he then blames the Obama administration for not fighting harder to keep a minimal force in Iraq over Maliki’s and the American people’s wishes as the occupation came to a merciful close in 2011. Somehow, that residual force would have restrained Maliki in his Shiite excesses, as the US did from 2006 onward, in the middle of a swirling civil war. The old guard in Washington will jump at this conclusion – with the neocon right and neocon left (what else do we call the liberals who never see a conflict in which the US should not be involved for the betterment of humankind?) rallying behind a new interventionism or, worse, a Captain Hindsight desire to pummel Obama again, while offering no real alternative.
It’s always a tempting idea that if we had stayed a little longer, all would have been well. It’s worth recalling the neocon desire to stay in Iraq for decades if necessary, in order to somehow forcibly impose a democratic structure on a sectarian, authoritarian and pathological non-state. But this is based on the fundamental illusion that the surge achieved anything of substance in altering sectarian divisions or Islamist extremism and thereby we ever had a success to sustain. We didn’t. We were able to temporarily pacify – by bribes and military maneuvering – a civil war that had always simmered below the Iraqi surface and had flared brutally even as we had 100,000 troops in the country. The idea that a few hundred could have prevented Iraq’s return to its historic sectarian entropy strikes me as absurd. It is not crazy for a Maliki ally to air this idea to Filkins in order to exonerate Maliki in the ensuing blood bath. What’s crazy is to take it at face value.
Yes, we broke Iraq in 2003. But another eight years of occupation, and billions in expense, fulfilled what obligation we had to the place. Does its disintegration mean more peril for the US?
We cannot know. But right now, it is a classic battleground for the ancient Shia-Sunni religious war still raging in the Middle East – with Iran and Saudi Arabia deep in the conflict. We have and must have no dog in that fight. And if we were to intervene again, we would only increase the likelihood of our being a target for some of the extremists now thriving there – on both sides. Mercifully, they hate each other more than they hate us – unless we give them yet another reason to turn their attention to the West.
The interventionists, remember, wanted us backing the Sunnis in Syria and now want us to back the Shia and Kurds in Iraq to prevent a newly fanatical Sunni insurgency. It makes you dizzy after a while. After a while, we’d just be taking turns backing one side or another, all the while painting a giant target on our own back. But the hegemonic impulse to take every problem in the world as our own remains strong – especially among elites who love the idea of throwing their weight around in a world they have demonstrated they do not understand and cannot control.
I fear that the sane, smart decision to tell Maliki that we are not coming over the horizon to save him may not hold against the interventionists within the administration or against the Washington elite’s desire to keep running the world as they used to. If Obama succumbs, as he did in the disastrous Libya intervention, then much that he has achieved in de-leveraging the US from its neo-imperial burden would be at risk.
This is their religious war, and not ours. Neither an American soldier nor an American cent should be spent to alter its trajectory.