Saturday, August 2, 2014

Jessica T. Matthews: U.S. Leaves A Legacy Of "Iraq Illusions"

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Jessica T. Matthews (left), president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, provides a grim account of the legacy that America left in Iraq. Instead of a Sunni-dominated corrupt and brutal state under Saddam Hussein, there is now a Shia-dominated corrupt and brutal state under Nouri-al Maliki. The nation-building and democracy-spreading propaganda under the Bush administration were, as the title of Matthews' essay puts it, "Iraq Illusions." This state of affairs can hardly be repaired by continued U.S. military engagement, as advocated recently by Iraq war hawks who were wrong then and are wrong now:

Had the US been willing to stay longer, might the artificial peace its troops imposed have turned into a real one? Perhaps it might have, if American forces had continued to occupy Iraq for another decade or two. But it is unlikely that Iraq or its neighbors would have been willing to tolerate our presence for that long, and people can nurse a political dream or a desire for revenge for far longer even than that. Iraqis knew that someday we’d be gone and they would remain. They could afford to wait.

Nor did we give short shrift to building up Iraqi security. Iraq has a huge military apparatus—a million men under arms—extensively and expensively trained, and equipped with American weapons. It is a fantasy to argue that another year or two of the US presence would have fundamentally altered Iraq’s military response to the jihadists, for an army will not fight well for a government it does not respect. As Admiral Michael Mullen told Congress in July 2007, shortly before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Iraq needs political reconciliation; “barring that, no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference.”

What Prime Minister Maliki has done since taking office eight years ago is to systematically exclude and abuse Iraq’s Sunnis. He has justified everything from denial of government resources to arbitrary arrest and torture on the grounds that he is fighting a war against terror. But he has pointedly failed to classify Shia violence—including, for example, dozens of killings by Asaib, a Shia militia in Basra—as terror. At the same time, he has put himself at the center of the state’s power at the expense of its other institutions. Parliament is powerless and government ministries, the judiciary, and the security forces are politicized and corrupt. The criterion of appointment is loyalty to Maliki, not competence. Lawless Shia militias, answerable only to their leaders, supplant the army and police. Under varying degrees of US pressure to change this behavior, Maliki has nonetheless enjoyed US backing throughout, including through two reelections.

There is no military solution to this state of affairs. The solution must be political, and the fact that there is only a slim chance of success does not make doing the wrong thing any more sensible. The administration should not be stampeded by either Washington hawks or cries of imminent collapse from Baghdad into mission creep on the ground or into becoming Maliki’s air force. Instead, over the coming month or two, it should use all its strength to push for a new Iraqi prime minister and a government that can make a credible case for Sunni and Kurdish support. It is true that Maliki has just been reelected, but his party holds only a quarter of the seats in Parliament—hardly a mandate.

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