Iraq is Still Broken, We Still Can’t Fix It

Was our mistake pulling out, or invading in the first place?


The fall of Mosul to Sunni extremists has put Iraq back in the headlines, pulling it out of the memory hole where it had been since American troops left in 2011.

Pundits and politicians have responded in two ways. If you were for the war, Mosul’s fall shows that President Obama was wrong to pull our troops out before the Iraqi government was established well enough to stand on its own; we should at least send in air strikes or possibly even return with soldiers.

If you were against the war, the fact the nearly nine years of American occupation could come unraveled so quickly — that the Iraqi army we spent so much time and money on “standing up” so that ours could “stand down” abandoned its weapons and ran in the face of a smaller, less well equipped enemy — underlines what a huge blunder it was to invade the country in the first place; re-entering the war would just repeat that mistake.

I stand by the position I took in August, 2005 in a Daily Kos piece called “Cut and Run“. (Two months later I would start the blog that eventually morphed into The Weekly Sift.)

We all know the rhetoric against an immediate pull-out: We can’t cut and run. We have to stay until the job is finished. Otherwise our 1800-and-counting dead soldiers will have died in vain. We have to stay until we fix all the things we’ve broken.

Eventually, though, those who understand that the invasion was a mistake will have to face a second hard truth: We’re not fixing anything by staying. Whether we leave in a week or a year or in twenty years, Iraq will be a broken country. The only difference is this: Will 1,800 soldiers have died in vain, or thousands more? … We can leave Iraq now, or we can leave after our losses have grown. That is the only choice we have.

If we had cut and run in 2005, Iraq would probably have devolved into sectarian civil war. So instead, we stayed another 6+ years, spent additional hundreds of billions, killed a lot Iraqis, and got another two-and-a-half thousand of our own troops killed … and Iraq has devolved into a sectarian civil war.

But putting hindsight and I-told-you-sos aside, what is happening now and what is likely to happen in the future? All through the Iraq War, Juan Cole (a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan) has provided clear insight. Now he sees Iraq in sectarian (rather than national) terms. The national army commanded by the Shiite-dominated government has proven itself useless at defending its Sunni-dominated territory against a Sunni insurgency. The only effective fighting forces are the sectarian militias: The Kurdish Pesh Merga is defending Kirkuk, and the Shiite militias are rising to defend Baghdad (which is largely Shiite after the 2006-2008 civil war pushed out many of its Sunnis). If the national army holds together at all, it will probably do so as a Shiite force. Prime Minister Maliki’s

inability to reach out to Sunni Arabs made plausible what the entire Iraqi parliament rejected when it came out, the Biden plan for the partition of the country.

This time, though, eastern Syria is part of the Sunni partition, leaving an Alawite state in the west.


Neocons argue that we can’t allow such a Sunni state, particularly one controlled by ISIS, because it will lead to another 9/11 — as if there have been no terrorist training camps in the world since we invaded Afghanistan, and as if Afghanistan was the only place 9/11 could have been prevented.

More realistically, we can’t prevent terrorists from training. We can’t even prevent them from training in America, as our home-grown right-wing militias do. And yet, we have managed to prevent any 9/11-scale attacks on U.S. soil for the last dozen years. The existence of terrorist safe havens is bad, but not nearly so bad that we need to control the world to keep ourselves safe. Attacking any region that threatens to become a terrorist haven is a recipe for constant warfare, which in the long run may create more America-hating terrorists than it kills.

The Sunni lines also fail to include either of Iraq’s large oil fields: the southern one around Basra and the northern one around Kirkuk. That’s one reason the partition plan never took off: Sunnis knew they were drawing the short straw.


Here’s the most annoying aspect of the current discussion of Iraq: The media treats as experts the same people who were so horribly wrong about Iraq before we invaded. Surely they proved in 2002 that they are not Iraq experts.

Arguing against the points they make only legitimizes their “expertise”. The only proper response to them is Ygritte’s line from Game of Thrones: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” If neocons want to convince me that re-engaging in Iraq is a good idea, let them send out a spokesman who at least understands what a bad idea the invasion was to begin with.

On Thursday, during a segment in which she pointed out the similarities to the way the large American-equipped South Vietnamese army dissolved in 1975, Rachel Maddow targeted one of the most discredited of the “Iraq experts”: Kenneth Pollack, who Maddow describes as “the captain of Team Wrong in 2002”. Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm: the case for invading Iraq, which came out a month before the invasion and re-packaged many of the points he had been making in op-eds all through 2002, gave spectacularly bad advice about more-or-less everything. This, for example:

Those who would argue that the United States would inevitably become the target of unhappy Iraqis generally also assume that the Iraqi population would be hostile to U.S. forces from the outset. However, the best evidence we have suggests that the Iraqi people would be pleased to be liberated.

So don’t worry about those unhappy Iraqis, they’ll welcome us like the Munchkins welcomed Dorothy.

But that didn’t stop the NYT from quoting Pollack Wednesday without mention of his abysmal record. This is yet an aspect of the problem Chris Hayes pointed out in Twilight of the Elites: There is no accountability in the expert class. No matter how many times you are wrong, you are still an expert. That’s why I support James Poniewozik’s proposal:

Rule: where available, all 2014 Iraq punditry must be accompanied by link(s) to the author’s 2002/3 Iraq punditry.

Here is one of Juan Cole’s last pre-invasion posts: “It Appears To Be Case That Iraq Simply has no nuclear weapons program“. From there you can easily get to the rest of his 2003 archives.

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  • By Ignorance and Nostalgia | The Weekly Sift on June 16, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    […] next week. The next articles will appear on June 30. This week’s featured articles are “Iraq is Still Broken, We Still Can’t Fix It” and “Actually, David IS […]

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