One of the most persistently voiced myths about U.S. foreign policy of the past several years—and because of that persistent voicing, one apparently already entrenched in the minds of many Americans—concerns the status as of about five years ago of the big experiment in regime change and nation-building known as the Iraq War. According to the myth, the war was all but won by then, with just a few more touches yet to be added to complete the forging of a stable Iraqi democracy, before the Obama administration snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by prematurely withdrawing the remaining U.S. troops that were need to finish the job. No matter how often the myth gets repeated, it is just as false now as the first part of the myth was five years ago.
It is easy to see the motivations for promoting the myth. Probably the leading motivation is to relieve the cognitive dissonance and the blow to personal reputations of those who promoted or strongly supported the war itself—the grandest neoconservative project ever and the biggest foreign policy endeavor of the George W. Bush administration—only to see it materialize as one of the biggest and costliest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Also rough on amour-propre, and in a way more worthy of understanding and even respect from the rest of us than is the case with the war-promoters, is how those in uniform who were given the task of carrying out the project have not been able to claim honestly that their efforts and sacrifices resulted in a victory. Yet another obvious motivation, which arises whenever Barack Obama's political opponents find a stick they can employ to beat him, is to use the troubles of Iraq today as one more such stick.
With regard particularly to that last motivation, it always has been puzzling how the part of the myth relating to Obama's policies gets propagated even though it was the Bush administration that established the schedule for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011. The Obama administration merely carried out the terms of the agreement that the Bush administration had negotiated with the Iraq government. In response to assertions that Mr. Obama “didn't try hard enough” to negotiate a new agreement with different terms, which implication are we supposed to draw: that Mr. Bush did not try hard enough in the first place, or that when Bush people and Obama people each try to do the same thing we should expect the Obama people to be better at it?
But the myth has more significant consequences than its effect on the partisan scorecard.
A reflection of the discrepancy between the myth and Iraqi reality arose in a public debate in which I participated a couple of months ago, the topic of which concerned the efficacy, or lack thereof, of additional applications of U.S. military force in the Middle East. One of my opponents on the pro-efficacy side (a prominent neocon pundit) asserted that Iraq was “at peace” in 2009. As one measure of what this supposedly peaceful state looked like, consider the statistics compiled by the Iraq Body Count project, which show 5,309 civilian deaths from the continued violence in Iraq in 2009. For comparison, that is more than total U.S. combat deaths for the entire war. It also includes only documented civilian deaths, which are basically collateral damage, and does not reflect either undocumented casualties or the full toll among government forces and militias who were the principal combatants.
The civil war unleashed by the U.S. invasion and ouster of the Iraqi regime has had an unbroken history, from then through today. Like most wars, its intensity has ebbed and flowed. The surge of U.S. troops in 2007 and 2008 was one factor, but only one, involved in one of the ebbs. And if there are more than 160,000 U.S. troops in a country, as there were in Iraq at the peak of the U.S. occupation, we certainly should expect some effect on the ebb and flow. Even with the temporary ebbing of the violence, the issues driving the civil war remained unsettled—fundamental issues involving distribution of political power in Iraq. The surge was intended to make it possible for Iraqis to resolve those issues, and in that respect the surge failed. There is an unbroken history from the conflict of interests that caused the civil war and its associated mélange of insurgencies to break out a decade ago, to the conflict of interests—which is mostly the same unresolved conflict of interests among sectarian and ethnic communities—that underlies the violence in Iraq today. There also is an unbroken history from the most violent and extreme of the groups in Iraq as of several years ago and the feared group ISIS—which is the same group with a new name and a new leader—that is such a preoccupation today.
There never has been a logic accompanying the myth. If eight and a half years of U.S troops in Iraq were not enough, then why should we expect a few more years (or would it turn out to be only a few?) of a troop presence to be sufficient? And if 160,000 troops were not enough, then why should we expect a smaller number (or would it re-escalate to a large number?) to be sufficient?
The myth seems to be predicated on some strange process of telepathic osmosis by which democratic thoughts in the minds of American troops in Iraq would somehow have gotten former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to have turned away from his sectarian and authoritarian habits and nourished an inclusive, tolerant, multi-confessional democracy. What else exactly could U.S. troops in Iraq have done if they had lingered longer in Iraq to have made such a political difference? Threaten to overthrow Maliki, through a kind of U.S.-led military coup, if he didn't get with the program? If U.S. forces instead would have been helping to provide security against the extremist groups and Sunni insurgents whose support has been rooted all along in opposition to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, that would only have reduced rather than increased Maliki's incentive to reform and to be more inclusive.
If telepathic osmosis was not expected to work and whatever good U.S. troops would have done would be in spite of the unhelpful ways of Iraqi politicians such as Maliki, then the job would never be done, if the job is defined as making way for a stable Iraqi democracy standing on its own. Or at least it would not be done on any time scale less than generational—a time scale, measured in decades, long enough for a new political culture to evolve. Until then, U.S. troops would have been sitting forcefully and indefinitely on the ingredients of a volatile stew—a little like how Saddam Hussein sat on top of it in a much more brutal way, before the U.S. removed him and the stew boiled over.
No, we never won, or almost won, the Iraq War. One of the uniformed leaders who was given the task to try to do that, now retired three-star general Daniel Bolger, has painfully—but honestly, and not buying into myths that would be soothing for him and his colleagues— acknowledged this by writing:
“The surge in Iraq did not 'win' anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad and hobbled by our fellow Americans' unwillingness to commit to a fight lasting decades, the surge just forestalled today's stalemate. Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fever patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn't go away.”
The damage that the myth about Iraq inflicts is not limited to fostering public misunderstanding about an important episode in modern American history, although that is indeed harmful. It is not limited to fostering misunderstanding about who was right and who was wrong about that episode and thus who should and should not be listened to on similar matters, a misunderstanding that also is harmful. The damage extends to the encouragement of more general misconceptions about efficacy of the exertion of U.S. power overseas.
George Kennan made a somewhat similar observation about an earlier set of myths and recriminations concerning developments in another faraway country that has been a preoccupation of Americans. The belief that we “lost China,” wrote Kennan, “seriously distorted the understanding of a great many Americans about foreign policy, implying that our policy was always the decisive mover of events everywhere in the world; that in any country of the world, including China, we had it in our power to prevent the rise to positions of authority of people professing Marxist sympathies...”