Obama’s impossible choices on Iraq

Jun 18 2014, 01:08 IST
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SummaryPresident Barack Obama is facing his own impossible choice. The US will almost certainly be forced to intervene in Iraq

Iraq was a bold US experiment in nation-building. It turned out to be a flop.

That’s what we’re learning as we watch what the US achieved there evaporate after nine years of war, after nearly 4,500 Americans were killed, 32,000 wounded and $800 billion in US taxpayer money spent.

When George W Bush first ran for president in 2000, he expressed contempt for nation-building. It was a point he made in rally after rally. “I’m worried about the fact I’m running against a man,” Bush said, “who uses ‘military’ and ‘nation-building’ in the same sentence.”

But what were US troops doing in Iraq four years later if not nation-building?

The US military can do many things supremely well. They are all military things—like fighting wars, repelling invasions and providing security. But nation-building—the task that devolved upon them in both Iraq and Afghanistan—is political, not military. And politics is not something the military can do very well. Nor should anyone expect it to.

The US spent a fortune on training and equipping the Iraqis. But Iraqi soldiers just laid down their arms and surrendered to the jihadist invaders in northern Iraq. “The problem is not advice. The problem is not arms and equipment. They’ve got a load of this stuff,” Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Politico. “The problem is they don’t fight… There’s nothing to fight for because they don’t believe in the government.”

Washington expected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to build a consensus government in Iraq. But he was ill-equipped and unwilling to do so. Maliki is the leader of a Shi’ite political party. He has been distrustful and suspicious of Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities and has done little to share power with them. As a result, the minorities feel little loyalty to the Iraqi government and are unwilling to fight for its survival.

Iraq is disintegrating. The civil war in Syria is precipitating a civil war in Iraq between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, with Kurds seizing the opportunity to establish their own autonomous, if not independent, state. It’s an impossible choice for the US. The Shi’ites are supported by Iran, the Sunnis by al Qaeda.

The Bush administration actually believed we could export democracy to the Middle East. Bush announced the “Bush Doctrine” in 2005, in his second Inaugural Address. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” Bush declared. “So

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