Iraq: Relearning Forgotten Lessons

George W. Bush declaring "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq in 2003

by Henry Precht

The Blame Game on Iraq threatens to eclipse the popularity of the World Cup — at least among American self-nominated experts on that poor country. Where have we heard those authoritative voices before — Kristol, Pollack, Wolfowitz — even the castigator-in-chief Cheney. Oh, yes. Now you remember. They were promoters of the 2003 Iraq invasion which was to have been, they assured us, demonstrative of American power and the first step towards an outbreak of moderation, friendship and democracy not only in Iraq, but all over the Middle East.

Wrong, tragically wrong, they were — a conclusion attested to by 4,500 American dead, many more wounded, over a trillion dollars spent and countless (who counts?) Iraqi casualties. A badly wounded country, Iraq, I mean, although the same adjective would fit this country as well. To keep this background in mind I recommend that media outlets affix to those savants now reappearing in print or on TV the suffix (something like Ph.D. or the British CME) WOI — signifying “Wrong on Iraq” as warning to the unwary public.

But let’s move on to the true facts. Who did lose Iraq and how did they manage it?

First, we swallowed a plateful of our values in supporting Iraq in the war it imposed on Iran (as well as on its own Kurds.) That made it last much longer, busted Iraq and caused it to turn on its supposed benefactors — Kuwait and other Gulf Arabs — and led to the invasion of the former.

After easy Gulf War I, we imposed deadly sanctions for about a decade until Bush II invaded — the worst move in US foreign policy since LBJ and Nixon grievously damaged us by the escalating the Vietnam war.

After “shock and aweing” Baghdad, more bad moves were to come. The Bush perpetrators insured long-term loss by disbanding the Iraq army and the Baath Party. Closing down the army left the country without a defense force for internal and external threats and, with the same adroit stupidity, created a rebel force of unemployed, unpaid, Sunni men opposed to the majority Shia who were taking over the country (for the first time in modern history.)

Casting out Baath party members was almost as dumbly devastating: Under Saddam Iraq was a one party state with membership required for virtually any significant job in government or the private sector. No nation can lose its skilled cadres and continue to function well. Thanks to a US-designed electoral system suitable for New England, but hardly for a sharply divided nation without experience with democracy, Iraq has a Shia government led by Nouri al-Maliki, together with a disgruntled Sunni opposition, quasi independent Kurdish statelet and heavy Iranian influence. No surprise when Maliki rejected the US demand for legal immunity for our troops that might have stayed on. They left — much to President Obama’s pleasure.

Probably that split-up was not only inevitable but a good thing for us. American troops could have remained another decade without basically affecting the structure, dissension and functioning of the country.

But, wait, there’s yet another grievous mistake. Obama decided Assad of Syria had to go — notwithstanding his most formidable enemies were Islamic terrorists (ISIS). We turned our backs as Saudis and other rich Sunnis opposed to Assad’s Iranian backers funneled in cash and arms. Those same Islamic terrorists are now opposed by us as they move to seize Sunni areas of neighboring Iraq. A safe haven for terrorists is being established despite our [indirect and limited] aid to al-Maliki and because of our [indirect and permissive] support for ISIS in Syria.

Last week Obama proposed half a million dollars in aid to ”appropriately vetted” opponents of Assad. Wrong in Syria (WIS) — for the arms will (1) surely filter to ISIS and (2) a weakened Assad will mean a strengthened ISIS.

Enough of the fumbling incoherence of both Obama and his neo-con critics. What should be done?

We should leave those regional states with most at stake to address the problem: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states plus Egypt. They have the most to lose; they should expend the most. We can cheer from the sidelines. However, any serious commitment of our forces will only suck us in more deeply and, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, turn people against us.

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.



  1. The United States is nowhere near as “badly wounded” as Iraq. I don’t know if we could even survive what they went through.

  2. Very good post Mr Precht, thank you for your insight. When is the time ripe to pull out and send the incompetent idiots who made this mess and continue to yell fire in the crowed theater, to the Hague?

  3. You got it half right, everyone does need to get out of the region and people should be left to govern themselves. Iran needs to pull out its Quds Force and stop intervening in propping up Maliki and the West should ensure the Iraqi people get the chance to build their nation themselves. That includes ensuring Kurds, Shi’a and Sunni all get seats at the table, otherwise we might as well partition the county and get it over with. For those that think allowing Iran and Saudi Arabia to duke it out is just asking to spread the sectarian violence of Syria all around the Middle East. Every nation should be working to ensure that nations be given the breathing room and security to develop their own governments free from war and religious reprisals.

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