Blogs: Paul Pillar

Saving Face in Tehran

The Cold War Mindset and Counterterrorism

Russian Realism in the Middle East

The Woulda Coulda Shoulda School of Foreign Policy Analysis

Paul Pillar

One variant on the line of criticism involved is the idea that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose authoritarian ways had a lot to do with instability and rancor in Iraqi politics, somehow could have been turned into a different sort of political animal if U.S. troops had been in the vicinity. How exactly was this supposed to work? That GIs would march into his office and give him an ultimatum to be a nicer and more conciliatory guy? Is that the way it worked when we had the 166,000 troops there? No, the problem is rooted in Iraqi political culture and political demography, not the location of U.S. troops.

Other variants focus more on ISIS. Here the central historical fact that too often is left unsaid is that the group came into existence as a direct result of the conflict and disorder that the 2003 invasion ignited and that the group has had, under different names, a continuous existence—including through the U.S. troop “surge”—ever since. Some military action has hurt ISIS but other military action has had the opposite effect. When group leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006, this made possible the emergence of the more capable Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, under whom the group would make its most dramatic territorial gains.

The criticism that keeps trying to tell us that things in that part of the world would have been better if only President Obama had followed a different course says much less about any mistakes by Mr. Obama than about the badly flawed mode of analysis the critics are using.                    

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Legitimizing Extremism

Paul Pillar

One variant on the line of criticism involved is the idea that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose authoritarian ways had a lot to do with instability and rancor in Iraqi politics, somehow could have been turned into a different sort of political animal if U.S. troops had been in the vicinity. How exactly was this supposed to work? That GIs would march into his office and give him an ultimatum to be a nicer and more conciliatory guy? Is that the way it worked when we had the 166,000 troops there? No, the problem is rooted in Iraqi political culture and political demography, not the location of U.S. troops.

Other variants focus more on ISIS. Here the central historical fact that too often is left unsaid is that the group came into existence as a direct result of the conflict and disorder that the 2003 invasion ignited and that the group has had, under different names, a continuous existence—including through the U.S. troop “surge”—ever since. Some military action has hurt ISIS but other military action has had the opposite effect. When group leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006, this made possible the emergence of the more capable Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, under whom the group would make its most dramatic territorial gains.

The criticism that keeps trying to tell us that things in that part of the world would have been better if only President Obama had followed a different course says much less about any mistakes by Mr. Obama than about the badly flawed mode of analysis the critics are using.                    

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