Obamas impossible choices on Iraq

Written by Reuters | Updated: Jun 18 2014, 06:38am hrs
Iraq was a bold US experiment in nation-building. It turned out to be a flop.

Thats what were learning as we watch what the US achieved there evaporate after nine years of war, after nearly 4,500 Americans were killed, 32,000 wounded and $800 billion in US taxpayer money spent.

When George W Bush first ran for president in 2000, he expressed contempt for nation-building. It was a point he made in rally after rally. Im worried about the fact Im running against a man, Bush said, who uses military and nation-building in the same sentence.

But what were US troops doing in Iraq four years later if not nation-building

The US military can do many things supremely well. They are all military thingslike fighting wars, repelling invasions and providing security. But nation-buildingthe task that devolved upon them in both Iraq and Afghanistanis political, not military. And politics is not something the military can do very well. Nor should anyone expect it to.

The US spent a fortune on training and equipping the Iraqis. But Iraqi soldiers just laid down their arms and surrendered to the jihadist invaders in northern Iraq. The problem is not advice. The problem is not arms and equipment. Theyve got a load of this stuff, Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Politico. The problem is they dont fight Theres nothing to fight for because they dont believe in the government.

Washington expected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to build a consensus government in Iraq. But he was ill-equipped and unwilling to do so. Maliki is the leader of a Shiite political party. He has been distrustful and suspicious of Iraqs Sunni and Kurdish minorities and has done little to share power with them. As a result, the minorities feel little loyalty to the Iraqi government and are unwilling to fight for its survival.

Iraq is disintegrating. The civil war in Syria is precipitating a civil war in Iraq between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, with Kurds seizing the opportunity to establish their own autonomous, if not independent, state. Its an impossible choice for the US. The Shiites are supported by Iran, the Sunnis by al Qaeda.

The Bush administration actually believed we could export democracy to the Middle East. Bush announced the Bush Doctrine in 2005, in his second Inaugural Address. The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands, Bush declared. So it is the policy of the US to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

Set aside the fact that that is an arguable proposition. Would the US really be more secure if countries like Saudi Arabia became democracies When Egypt and Gaza held democratic elections, Islamist parties won. Nor is it by any means clear that US policymakers understand enough about other countries politics to somehow turn them into functioning democracies.

What is clear is that the American public hates political wars. Americans believe the US military should be used to win military victoriesnot to intervene in other countries politics or keep unreliable foreign governments in power. Which is exactly what the US did in Iraq and Afghanistanand Vietnam.

We certainly dont want to fight their fight, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week, because youd be fighting for a dysfunctional, unrepresentative, authoritarian government. Theres no reason on earth that I know of that we would ever sacrifice a single American life for that.

Now President Barack Obama is facing his own impossible choice. We will almost certainly be forced to intervene in Iraq. We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, Obama said last week.

The president has promised not to send ground troops. But it is unclear what air strikes can accomplish. We will need special operations forces and intelligence agents on the ground to identify targets. And we may have to strike targets in Syria.

The debate over Who lost Iraq has already begun in the US. Republicans blame Obama for pulling out of Iraq too soon, though the decision to withdraw US troops in 2011 was overwhelmingly popular. Our failure to leave forces in Iraq is why I predicted this would happen, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) said.

But what could US troops do Were not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while were there, were keeping a lid on things, Obama said.

It was really Maliki who lost Iraq. It was hopelessly naive for Washington to believe that the US could somehow turn a sectarian politician like Maliki into a model democrat.

The US is skilled at exporting arms and equipment and advice. We are no good at all at exporting democratic politics.