“What just happened? Terrorists who are too extreme by al-Qaeda’s standards suddenly overtook Iraq? Wow, that was totally unexpected!”
Except, of course – it wasn’t unexpected at all. That’s part of the problem.
Iraq is back in the world’s news – for reasons no Iraqi would sympathize with. The last time there was a country that so possessed the strategic planners in Western capitals for its housing of terrorism was in 2001 and that country was Afghanistan.
Afghanistan was the then home of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, sheltered by the Taliban forces. But in truth, despite the horror that then came to bear on the U.S. on 9/11, the seeds for something quite different – and potentially far worse – have been sown on Iraqi soil.
The “blame” game is now out in full force – the Iraq War of 2003, pitched as part of the “war on terror,” is being saddled with the responsibility for creating this situation. The “cop-out” game is also being played in full force, with former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who led the UK into the war alongside the United States, describing as “bizarre” the notion that the war essentially led to this outcome. It’s not that either of these arguments is right – they’re actually both wrong.
There is much blame to go around for what is happening in Iraq – and there will be many who try to pass the buckH.A. Hellyer
In 2003, I was an ESRC doctoral fellow at the University of Warwick. At the time, one of British academia’s most well-known specialists on Iraq, Toby Dodge, was at Warwick (he later moved back to London). I remember him giving a talk about Iraq, and asking him in the question and answer session the following: “In 1991, after Saddam Hussein had been pushed from Kuwait, the United States openly encouraged a rebellion among Iraqis against his regime. Iraqis in the south of the country who took the U.S.’s encouragement seriously then did rebel against Saddam – and no help came from outside. Saddam’s forces regrouped, and crushed them. Why, if the U.S. was never going to follow through with assistance, did the U.S. encourage an uprising that would then be crushed?” It’s not often that an academic of Dodge’s experience answers a question with an answer such as “I have no idea.”
More than a decade on from that question – and more than two decades on from the events it discussed – I still do not know the real answer to that question. I do know we’ve pretty much forgotten that it was a question to begin with – that a decision was made in a country far, far away, and it was not anyone in that country that had to pay the price for that decision. Rather, it was thousands of people, on the ground, elsewhere. And that reality, unfortunately, continues to haunt the way in which we continue to look at the Arab region – it’s important to our national interests (as the West), but the decisions we make will have far deeper repercussions for those who actually are there.
Enough blame to go around
In truth, there is much blame to go around for what is happening in Iraq – and there will be many who try to pass the buck. We can point to the war in 2003 – but we can also point to the war in 1991 and how it ended. We seem to have forgotten about that. We can point to how the current prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki, has treated Iraqi governance, to the point where the basic building blocks of a cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic Iraqi citizenship, have broken down – and that is not a direct consequence of the Iraq war of 2003. No-one put a gun to Maliki’s head and insisted he govern in that fashion – that was a choice he made openly and freely. Moreover, it was one that others in the region were perfectly willing to back him up on.
We can also point to how Maliki’s policies laid down fertile ground for a deeply sectarian conflict – and essentially, a civil war – to erupt in Iraq. But no-one forced any supporter of ISIS to bankroll their activities – and those supporters are not simply in Iraq. They exist elsewhere in the region and they have been providing material assistance to ISIS for a long time. Just because we have not paid sufficient attention to it does not mean it has not been going on right under all of our noses. Indeed, it’s been facilitated by many of our own allies.
None of this should have been surprising. But it was. One would like to be certain that we in the West will learn our lesson and keep a closer eye on what our choices, and the choices of our allies with our tacit consent, actually lead to, in the future. But I am not so sure of that at all. The Syrian quagmire has taken a revolution that we should have supported more strategically, and used it to turn Syria into a proxy battle ground between powers in the region. When it is over – as all things must end – Syrians will have paid a costly price for the truly abysmal approach of the international community, and the international community in turn can expect there to be ramifications.
When those ramifications increase and intensify, we will then throw around the blame game again – and then there will be the cop-outs again. But none of that will be a substitute for understanding a basic truth. In the 21st century, states must learn how to deploy their power in a way that does not fall into the catastrophic errors of the Blair-Bush war of 2003, but that insists that the Syrian disaster – and now the Iraq catastrophe – is unacceptable. Otherwise, this will only be the latest in a long line of cataclysms to come.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.