COMMENTARY | The latest chapter in the complex relationship between the United States and Iraq has just grown far more dramatic and, once again, threatens to draw our nation into war. In the 1980s, we assisted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. In the Gulf War, we opposed the belligerent bully we once supplied with weapons, handing him a quick defeat and freeing the small nation of Kuwait. Twelve years later, we invaded Iraq again, this time under false pretenses. We were an occupying force for almost a decade, with questionable success at best. Now, less than three years after leaving Iraq, we watch as ISIS, a group of Islamist militants, threatens to destroy the newly-independent nation into which we poured billions upon billions of dollars.
Here we go again, again. Iraq has formally requested U.S. military assistance, this time in the form of airstrikes. President Barack Obama has ruled out any possibility of “boots on the ground,” same as he did last year in regard to Syria. Ironically, the same people we would have helped in Syria, the rebels opposing brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, are the same people we will be bombing and blasting in Iraq.
The latest news from the crisis is that the Obama administration thinks the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, must resign, having proven to not be a man who could unite Iraq, a nation full of diverse groups and tensions, reports CNN.
At home, president Obama is taking a savage lashing in the press from Republicans, who claim his haste to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq has led to today’s crisis. Whatever happens in Iraq, ranging from no U.S. assistance at all to an Iraq War 3.0, lessons are already apparent for Obama’s eventual successor, and they ain’t pretty.
First of all, presidents must remember that winning the “peace” is often harder than winning the war. While many of the United States’ wars have ended relatively cleanly, with conflicts from the War of 1812 to the Korean War, as well as the Gulf War, ending with a firm resolution and cessation of violence, at least toward American troops, many wars do not end the way we wish. They are fluid, festering, and fragmented. Our minimalist tactic in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, prompting what has widely been known as the Iraq War, did not take into account how difficult a stable occupation would be. To win the peace, we should have brought WWII-levels of occupying troops rather than expect a minimalist force to accomplish the job.
Occupations are expensive, and we should not seek to undertake them without sufficient troops. This realization may prompt us to undertake fewer foreign wars.
Additionally, leaving after a lengthy occupation, especially with all the errors and pitfalls likely to follow, is politically more difficult than leaving shortly after the war itself. Obama found himself in a quandary: We had already been in Iraq for almost six years when he took office…would we have to stay forever? It is unlikely that the crisis in Iraq would have unfolded much differently regardless of who won the last few presidential elections here at home, but Obama is the man in the hot seat. If we were still in Iraq the Republicans would undoubtedly be hollering about that instead!
Unfortunately, this will encourage presidents to become buck-passers when it comes to military occupations, always leaving the problem for the next presidents. Savage Obama too much, and the next president who undertakes a foreign war will remember to be sure to draw out the occupation until he or she leaves the White House.
Secondly, presidents must remember that a power vacuum is a terrible thing. While regime changes and coups that depose horrible dictators seem good on the surface, the U.S. has done a poor job of following up and making sure that bad is not followed by worse. We love to talk about the evils of tyrants, and are quick to urge their ouster, but have a track record of not shaping the post-coup government. Ironically, though we are quick to foment rebellion, revolution, and coup, we seem to fear being branded “heavy-handed” or “oppressive” in the aftermath.
I mean, if we’re going to depose a dictator, why not put in some extra legwork to make sure the next guy is actually an improvement? Presidents have feared this part of the process in the past but, seeing the result in Iraq, should not shy away. We made the mistake of de-Baathification after deposing Saddam Hussein, removing most of Iraq’s most knowledgeable government employees and administrators, including thousands who had no loyalty to Saddam’s heinous ways and were only members of the Baath Party to advance their respective careers. We created a power vacuum and did not seek to fill it well, or quickly.
Undertake preemptive wars with great care, hurry not the “peace,” and do not allow the creation of a power vacuum. If you must fight, fight the war fully and leave not the possibility for a vast insurgency. Once your enemy is vanquished, try to salvage the best parts of him to manage the post-war peace. These are the lessons Obama’s successor should heed.