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Who lost Iraq?

Iraq, it seems, has been ‘lost’ and ‘regained’ but never redeemed by the United States

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

The victory of communist forces led by Mae Zedong against the American supported nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, gave rise to the cry of anguish and defeat ‘who lost China?’ The cry would be repeated intermittently in subsequent decades, only with the name of the ‘lost’ country changing.

American scholars, historians and politicians would engage in endless debates both historic and esoteric, apportioning blame, and with a fair amount of self-flagellation about ‘who lost Vietnam?’ and ‘who lost Iran?’ as if those countries were America’s to lose. It was inevitable, that the question of ‘who lost Iraq?’ would be posed with some urgency, since Iraq it seems has been ‘lost’ and ‘regained’ but never redeemed by the United States. The current cover of Politico Magazine has two photos of President George W. Bush on one side, and Barack H. Obama on the other. In the middle is the headline: ’Who lost Iraq? Was it Bush’s fault or Obama’s?’

‘Mistakes were made’…by everybody

The participants – former diplomats and officials, retired generals and analysts- gave the expected answers (but also some insightful nuggets), ranging from the usual ‘mistakes were made’ during the early stages of the American occupation, to the ‘relative inattention’ to Iraq by the Obama administration. Many criticized the sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, designed to further marginalize the Sunnis of Iraq, and how the new Shiite leaders in Baghdad abused their newfound power. Others pointed out that the decision-making before the invasion of Iraq did not take into consideration the intense regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia with its attendant Shiite-Sunni dimension, and the machinations of regional powers, particularly Iran.

There were also the answers that delved into the deeper underlying factors that led to ‘losing’ Iraq. Brian Katulis, of the Center for American Progress bemoaned the lack of strategic planning and the absence of an-overarching political framework to deal with Iraq in a regional context, (you cannot delink Iraq from Syria, when ISIS does not) and the continuing fixation on the tactical aspects of the crisis, even at this late hour.

Katulis puts the primary responsibility for the failure in Iraq in the hands of Maliki and the Iraqi leadership. Former ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill, said that when he began his tour in 2009 he had the ‘impression the Iraqis were very much conflicted about the idea of a continuing American role.’ He noted that the pivot to Asia in Washington created unintended consequences including the sense that the ‘Middle East was yesterday’s news…a sense that America was moving on’ and away from the region. John McLaughlin former deputy director of the CIA, after saying that ‘to ask the question “who lost Iraq?” is not a fair question,’ stressed that to understand the predicament of Iraq you have to think of it in terms of ‘concentric circles,’ and that focusing on the immediate circle (Maliki and the Status of Forces Agreement and other immediate issues) prevents you from seeing the wider circles such as the regional context, and going all the way to the moment when the modern Middle East was created by the Sykes-Picot agreement between France and Britain in 1916.

Retired General Daniel Bolger, who served in Iraq noted that the United States ‘never got a better grip on the suspicious, beleaguered heartbroken Iraqi people. They are the real losers of this hard war, and they have been in anguish for decades.’ He succinctly summarized America’s tragic and quixotic encounter with Iraq thus: ‘one thing is pretty clear: Social work from the barrel of a gun is not a winning formula.’

Quixotic madness

The decision by George W. Bush’s administration to invade Iraq, a process that is still not fully explained or documented, is breathtaking in its immense hubris and ignorance of history. To think that even a powerful country like the United States can turn a faraway, harsh and already brittle and unforgiven country like Iraq that was broken by decades of authoritarianism, and unspeakable depravities, into a functioning democracy is truly the stuff of quixotic madness. The United States occupied a truly alien society about which it knew practically nothing; satellite images and intercepted communications do not constitute real intelligence. No one in Washington had felt the pulse of those twenty-something who constituted the majority of Iraqis. Hence the shock of the political establishment in Washington and the military command in Iraq at the display of Shiite religiosity such as flagellation rituals which were banned under Saddam’s regime. What was immutable during America's long, bitter, chaotic and painful occupation of Iraq was Murphy's Law: Everything that could go wrong did. And what is still astounding in a great democracy, is the inability or unwillingness of those who made the fateful decision to invade Iraq, have yet to own the consequences of their decision, to repent and/or be held responsible for the desolation and human debris they left behind in Mesopotamia, and the anguish they wrought in the heart of America.

A trajectory of blood, sweat and tears

It is clear now, that the invasion and the disastrous way the occupation was administered coupled with the parochialism and sectarianism of Iraqi leaders (and yes their communities too) and the machinations of the neighbors, particularly the Iranians, have quickened Iraq’s gradual slide towards sectarian and ethnic disintegration. But the seeds of Iraq’s unraveling have been sown decades earlier. It is true that Iraq from its inception was politically, socially and ethnically fractured, it was not inevitable that its deep fissures will prove impossible to resolution or mediation by a wiser political class. King Faisal of Iraq, was incredibly prescient and honest when he observed in 1933, that ‘there is still–and I say this with a heart full of sorrow–no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever. Out of these masses we want to fashion a people which we would train, educate, and refine…’ That immense challenge was never met. Iraq may have had a chance to mold a modern civil state under the monarchy, but the military officers, and the disgruntled rural masses who invaded Baghdad (and later Damascus and Cairo,) imbued by resentment of the ruling westernized elites, and driven by the delusions of Arab nationalism to restore the glorious Arab past, set it firmly on the road to perdition with its attendant blood, sweat and tears.

Iraq, it seems, has been ‘lost’ and ‘regained’ but never redeemed by the United States

Hisham Melhem

Iraq’s unraveling as a unitary state became almost inevitable, with Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran in 1980. This was the Middle Eastern version of Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Here too Murphy was at work. It seems that no one would dare whisper in Saddam’s ear what was the fate of those European powers that blundered into invading revolutionary France and Russia. The war deepened the Sunni-Shiite divide, wiped out a generation of young Iraqi and Iranian men, and transformed large swaths of Iranian and Iraqi lands into scorched earth with chemical and biological weapons. The war bankrupted Iraq, and Saddam set his lustful invading eyes on Kuwait and the rest is history.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars…

In this sad and tragic chronicle the Iraqis, particularly their political and religious leaders and brittle institutions, lost Iraq. Sure, some of the neighbors and some powers beyond the seas did contribute, with the conniving of one Iraqi group or another to the demise of modern Mesopotamia, but if human agency means anything, we have to say that the Iraqis themselves are responsible in the main for their grim fate.

The same can said about the Syrian calamity, the unmooring of Egypt, the heartbreak that is Yemen, and the disaster that is Libya. Petty officers, deluded Arab nationalists, atavistic religious leaders all intoxicated in their own versions of the absolute, wreaked havoc in their societies and turned their once shining and cultured cities, the very repository of the best that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have taught and created, into wastelands. Where once stood edifices of Phoenician, Greek, Persian, Roman and Arab civilizations side by side or on top of each other in layered forms, in Aleppo, Damascus , Baghdad, Cairo and Alexandrea, there exists today the wreckage of war, or the neglect of mediocre and hollow men. Where once the word ‘Madrasa’ meant a concept and a place for learning and where reason is applied, today these schools are breeding grounds for demagoguery and anti-reason.

A tale of deficits and failures

Long before the wave of Arab discontent that swept the region at the beginning of the decade, most Arab states were hollowed out politically and culturally by those who claimed to be the custodians of the past, the present and the future. In recent years the Arab Human Development Reports, a series of publications written by Arabs and focusing on the challenges and obstacles preventing the realization of Arab potentials showed in bold relief a stunted Arab world. There are scandalous ‘deficits’ in knowledge, freedom, education, scientific research and gender equality. There are close to 70 million adults who are illiterate, two-third of them women. A UNICEF report published in April said that one in every four children in the Middle East and North Africa (more than 21 million) are either out of school or at risk of cutting their education. There is practically no science being created in any Arab country. There are no first rate Arab universities, and those that are still graduating competitive students including in the fields of science and medicine are foreign owned and administered. The less than 10,000 books originally written in Arabic every year, concentrate on religion and tradition and less so on literature and social sciences. The publishing industry is barely surviving because of censorship, and low readership. The state of Arab media, particularly print media is not much better. Most of what is masquerading as political commentary, is essentially rhetoric or written in a wooden language and bereft of rational analysis. It is difficult to name more than a handful of serious political columnists worth reading throughout the Arab world.

These ‘deficits’ were at the heart of the discontent of the Arab uprisings, just as they were the main reason for their terrible failure. These uprisings failed to create or develop a single viable secular and democratic political force. None of the uprisings led to the emergence of a historic figure like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel, just as no such figure emerged during the quest for formal independence from European powers in the first half of the twentieth century. What is it about this arid region that seems to want to remain stuck in the past and refuses to embrace unconditionally the future, the way the Vietnamese are willing to put the past behind them and work closely and productively with the U.S. the same power that killed so many of them in a brutal war. Gandhi and Mandela had their feet deeply planted in their history and traditions, but they were decidedly men of the future, so was Havel. My friend Brian Katulis, himself an astute analyst of the Middle East asked me recently ‘why is it that the Arab world never produced a Gandhi?’ My immediate response came in the form of questions. Is it the culture? Is it Islam? Is it the broken politics of the region? I am still wondering, and wandering in the recesses of our recent history looking for an answer or answers.

Who lost Iraq? Who lost Syria? Libya? Yemen? And who is losing Egypt? To paraphrase Shakespeare; The fault, dear reader, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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