From a moral perspective, President Obama’s response to the plight of Iraqi minorities targeted for extinction by vicious Islamists is justifiable and even commendable. Yet the resumption of American military action in Iraq — bombs for the wicked, bundles for the innocent — cannot disguise the overall disarray of U.S. policy in the region.
The moral sensibilities that have apparently moved the Obama administration to renew the Iraq war are, to put it mildly, selective. Elsewhere in the immediate region, Washington has hesitated to confront wickedness and has stood by while innocents have been subjected to the cruelest treatment. Whatever the factors that have shaped the U.S. response to Syria’s civil war, the military coup that terminated Egypt’s experiment with democracy and Israel’s assault on Gaza, moral concerns have figured, at best, as an afterthought.
If recent U.S. actions in the Middle East contain a common theme, it’s this: a vague hope that suppressing rampant Islamic radicalism will restore order to a region that previous U.S. military efforts have done so much to destabilize. Yet translating that hope into reality poses daunting challenges, nowhere more so than in Iraq.
Peter Baker of the New York Times has referred to Iraq as the “graveyard of American ambition.” The characterization is an apt one. Each of the last five presidents has seen Iraq as an instrument to serve U.S. interests or has expected Baghdad to comply with specific American requirements. Each in turn has failed, bequeathing the consequences of that failure to his successor.
During the 1980s, to curb the ambitions of revolutionary Iran, Ronald Reagan sought to use Iraq as a proxy. The chief result, along with the vast and pointless bloodletting of the Iran-Iraq war, was to fuel the megalomania of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The administration of George H.W. Bush marked Iraq’s transformation from unseemly partner to full-fledged adversary. Bush punished Iraq for invading Kuwait, confident that from victory would come a “new world order.” Rather than order, the United States found itself saddled with responsibility for garrisoning the Persian Gulf.
To keep Hussein “in his box,” Bush inaugurated and Bill Clinton affirmed a policy of militarized containment. Yet the permanent stationing of U.S. forces in the Islamic world and the punitive sanctions imposed on Iraq stoked anti-American jihadism and thereby helped lay the basis for 9/11.
The events of September 2001 inspired President George. W. Bush to make Iraq the centerpiece of his campaign to transform the Greater Middle East. Promising to liberate and democratize Iraq, Bush instead broke it.
Although Barack Obama’s vow to extricate the United States from his predecessor’s misbegotten war vaulted him into the White House, events have stymied his hopes of making a clean break. A weak Iraq state and ineffective military forces — created at considerable expense during the several years of American occupation — have proved unable to cope with resurgent violence.
To imagine at this late date that the United States possesses the capacity to reverse this sad situation is surely a delusion. So even if an infusion of American air power succeeds in saving the lives of those at immediate risk, Iraq will remain a basket case. Riding to the temporary rescue of Kurds, Yazidis or persecuted Iraqi Christians may salve American consciences, but it won’t redeem a bipartisan record of failure that now extends over several decades. That failure is definitive and indelible.
Historians will have a field day in apportioning responsibility for that failure, a project likely to provoke arguments continuing far into the future. What those responsible for formulating policy are called on to do is to move on, cognizant of the past but accepting it as fixed and irrevocable.
If restoring a semblance of stability to the Middle East is in the interests of the United States, as it surely is, the present moment requires two things.
Step one is to stop doing what’s counterproductive. That means ending the excessive militarization of U.S. policy that Washington’s inordinate preoccupation with Iraq has promoted. Nothing would be more foolish than for President Obama to allow himself to be drawn into another large-scale conflict, as he himself appears to appreciate.
Step two means setting sensible priorities, differentiating between what is truly essential and what is merely important. Washington’s protracted obsession with Iraq over many years has badly skewed U.S. policy priorities. There are places that Americans should consider worth fighting and dying for. There are places on which the very fate of the planet may hinge. But Iraq is not one of those places. It’s time to break free of the tar baby and move on.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.
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