The ghosts of Iraq

Hisham Melhem

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How an American president will use, or not use, military power goes a long way in shaping his character, legacy and his place in history. The legacies of the three greatest American presidents; George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were molded, tested and determined by three transformational wars; the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Second World War. The first created the American Republic, the second saved the union and the third created a superpower. Since the end of WWII all American presidents used military force to varying degrees and with different results, at times unilaterally and at others as the leader of coalitions. Every time an American president contemplates the use of force he finds himself thinking of and reviewing past conflicts, and at times, not being able to escape from their shadows. President Obama who committed himself to punishing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people, after months of hesitation and dithering finds himself still haunted by the ghosts of the Iraq war.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson realized that achieving a decisive victory in the Vietnam War would cost the country dearly, he decided not to seek a second term. The Vietnam War tarnished Johnson’s otherwise good domestic record including the seminal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his Great Society reforms such as medical care for the elderly and the poor. President Jimmy Carter was “defeated” in the Great Salt Desert of Eastern Iran in 1980 when the attempt to rescue U.S. hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran failed, long before he was deprived of a second term by Ronald Reagan. Half way through his first term President Reagan escaped the humiliation of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, by immediately invading Granada and ratcheting up the war on the Soviet Union by proxy in Afghanistan and other theaters.

Successes and failures

The application of military power by President George Bush in 1991, against Iraq after its occupation of Kuwait, provides the best example of the judicious use of military force following an excellent diplomatic campaign to prepare world opinion to support a short war with well-defined objectives. That was a wise application of military power, made possible by Bush’s refusal to march on Baghdad.

While President Obama is not a pacifist, he is nonetheless a strong believer in the peaceful resolution of conflicts

Hisham Melhem

In as much as George Herbert Walker Bush was careful and thoughtful in his use of military power in the First Gulf War, his son George W. Bush was reckless and flippant in the use of military might even in the case of clear and legitimate self-defense such as Afghanistan, when he transformed the mission of punishing Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda into a mission of nation-building and the radical transformation of a very conservative, traditional society. However, Bush’s recklessness and arrogance of power reached its zenith when he ordered the invasion of Iraq, a major country in the heart of the Middle East, with the objective of creating a democracy in a country that was pulverized politically and socially by repressive military officers and later by the long nightmare under the Ba’ath party and particularly the bloody reign of Saddam Hussein. For almost a decade the U.S. found itself trying to achieve mission impossible, attempting to shape and fix a broken, complex, wounded and resentful society. It took U.S. planners a while to realize that they were stuck in a society they simply did not know. Americans, as well as the rest of the world were shocked when they realized the limits of American military power in the inhospitable Anbar desert and the alleyways of Fallujah.

And in as much as George W. Bush was reckless and irresponsible in his projection of American power overseas, President Obama flinches from the use of military power, and he is very hesitant in using it and very reluctant to wave it as a threat. His decision-making process to use force is notoriously long and Hamlet like, as was clear before he agreed to ‘lead from behind’ during the campaign in Libya, or even his decision to surge the troops in Afghanistan, not to mention the current agonizing public debates and endless deliberations in countless fora about the nature, duration and goals of the ‘limited’ strike against Syria.

No pacifist

While President Obama is not a pacifist, he is nonetheless a strong believer in the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the power of engagement to a fault. President Obama, who won the nomination of his party for the presidency because of his opposition to the Iraq War (and won the presidency because of a collapsing economy), is still haunted and hounded by the ghosts of Iraq. Just as during the conflict in Libya, the president’s episodic dealings with the Syrian tragedy have been informed by the lessons he learned, or more accurately overlearned from Iraq. President Obama was so eager to withdraw from Iraq that he really did not spend the time and energy or use his persuasive powers to renegotiate a deal with the Iraqi government to keep a residual U.S. force in Iraq.

With pressure mounting on him to use limited force in Syria, the president and his lieutenants endlessly repeat the mantra that the American people are “war weary” and “exhausted” from more than a decade of costly and unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ghosts of the Iraq war are numerous and their pressure and weight are relentless. Every time the evidence of the Assad regime’s culpability in the use of chemical weapons is raised, the ghosts of Iraq rear their heads and the memories of bogus Intelligence claims about Iraq’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction come to the fore. Secretary of State John Kerry is reminded during his testimonies in Congress of the faulty assertions of former Secretary of State Colin Powell regarding Iraq’s WMD arsenal. The ghosts of Iraq have damaged the credibility not only of U.S. Intelligence but also the credibility of the American president. A full decade after the invasion of Iraq, President Obama is paying the price for President Bush’s blunders in the land of the two famed rivers. The ghosts of Iraq are still hounding the Congress whose members were easily corralled into the war camp by President George W. Bush’s fantastic claims about the conniving of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. That is one of the reasons why some legislators are asking bluntly if the secretary of state is lying to them. Also the media, which with few notable exceptions failed in the run up to the 2003 invasion to ask the tough questions regarding evidence about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass killings, is asking today for solid evidence to establish the Syrian regime’s culpability in gassing its own people. Everyone is asking for assurances that the “limited” strike against Syria does not morph into another land war in another Arab/Muslim land.

For President Obama and most Americans, the most frightening ghosts of Iraq are those that remind them of the thousands of men and women in uniform who perished and were wounded in Iraq, along with untold numbers of Iraqis. The U.S. will live in the shadows of the war in Iraq for decades to come. Definitely, the more than thirty thousand wounded, many of whom suffered serious wounds and lost precious limbs and require physical and mental care at a tremendous cost, will continue to remind us of the folly of ill-conceived wars. Even the limited strike against Syria that President Obama contemplates cannot escape these ghosts. When President Obama looks at Syria, he sees Iraq and its ghosts and he no doubt flinches.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on September 5, 2013.


Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem’s writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, 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. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

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