by Nada Bakos
In a Washington Post column published yesterday, “What the Iraq war taught me about Syria,” Jackson Diehl takes on the criticism of hawks like himself who have been pilloried for supporting intervention in Syria even though the U.S. intervention in Iraq, which they supported, turned out so poorly. But, he writes, Syria is not Iraq, so President Obama and others are being too cautious if they assume the United States cannot help the rebels without stepping into a 10-year-long quagmire. “The problem here,” he writes, “is not that advocates of the Iraq invasion have failed to learn its lessons. It is that opponents of that war, starting with Obama, have learned the wrong ones.”
It would be a plausible argument if Diehl had not clearly missed many of the most basic lessons of the Iraq War. For example, he writes that “in the absence of U.S. intervention, Syria is looking like it could produce a much worse humanitarian disaster and a far more serious strategic reverse for the United States.” It is certainly true that Syria is a humanitarian disaster on a regional scale, and that the lack of a clear strategy by the United States for the past two years has limited our ability to shape the nature and trajectory of the conflict today. But the phrase “in the absence of U.S. intervention” suggests a degree of American agency that Iraq showed we simply don’t possess.
Military intervention by the United States cannot spawn democratic governments at will, and it cannot save the local population from violence and chaos. “Shock and awe” do not automatically lead to nation-building or even to regime change without a considerable commitment. To realize those objectives, you need to engage in a clearly articulated strategy of nation-building — a strategy that must encompass the State Department; regional actors such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon (some of which are grappling with their own internal issues); and international, regional, and local non-governmental organizations. Intervention is not simply a switch that you can flip with an order to deploy the military.
Diehl continues to extoll the effectiveness of the U.S. military in Iraq in ways that are almost willfully indifferent to historical realities. For example, he writes: “The difference is that the U.S. military triggered the transformation of Iraq, quickly disposing of the old regime and buffering the subsequent sectarian struggle.” Um, no. Iraq’s dissent into chaos was largely a result of a power vacuum left by de-Baathification, which left no security in place to maintain stability. (The CIA’s chief of station in Baghdad, for example, in 2003 was said to have claimed that the de-Baathification, as implemented by the Coalition Provisional Authority, would “drive 40,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground by nightfall. Which it did.) Yes, dismantlement of Saddam Hussein’s regime triggered a transformation — a transformation that led to a surge in violence directed at the U.S. military and across societal divides. We call that kind of transformation an “insurgency” or a “civil war.”
One of Diehl’s most fantastic assertions is the claim that the United States “faced down al-Qaeda and eventually dealt it a decisive defeat.” Look, I was on the team after 9/11 that analyzed whether there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and I was the chief targeting officer charged with following Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The war in Iraq provided al Qaeda with a new front for its struggle with the West. After the invasion, Zarqawi — the man who would lead al Qaeda in Iraq — pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and, consequently, money and weapons flowed into the country. The United States didn’t “face down” al Qaeda in Iraq; it inadvertently helped Zarqawi evolve from a lone extremist with a loose network to a charismatic leader of al Qaeda. By extension, it would be safe to say that the al Qaeda in Iraq affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, exists because of the Iraq invasion, and likely would find new authority and power if the United States made Syria the next front for the global jihadist movement.
Finally, Diehl misinterprets the outcome of the Iraq War by arguing that “U.S. influence in the Middle East remained strong.” A year after the Iraq War, Pew conducted a survey that revealed the “vast majorities in predominantly Muslim countries continue to hold unfavorable opinions of the U.S.” Our influence has been further undercut by the fact that we are broke and our political system is dysfunctional. The U.S. government is currently operating under sequestration, struggling to fund some of the basic needs for places like Syria. It could still employ superior military power in Syria, but 10 years of war have taken a toll on its troops and materiel. (Besides which, a more bellicose North Korea might soon demand more of its attention.) And the Iraq War also left the American people wary of military engagements — and they are the ones who will pay the bills in money and in lives.
The argument that unleashing the U.S. military industrial complex can bring about desired results during a conflict should have been deflated, beaten, and buried by now. The winner of the Iraq War was humility, and it is a prerequisite for a wiser foreign policy. That’s the only lesson that matters.