As I write this, a nasty Salafist group called ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is taking over Iraq, targeting Sunni areas in the north. They have already taken Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein and the last city to fall to coalition forces during the initial American takeover of the country. ISIS “rebels,” as many news outlets like to call them, have also taken Mosul, an economically important city and the second largest in Iraq. (Other reputable sources say Mosul is Iraq’s third largest city, after Baghdad and Basra.) All of this comes just a few months after Islamists raised their black flag over Fallujah.
The news has dredged up all the old arguments about the the Iraq War—in my estimation, the worst strategic mistake in U.S. history. They’re worth revisiting. One of the first analogies everyone reaches for is Vietnam, specifically the fall of Saigon in April 1975—just over two years after the last American combat soldier, Sgt. Max Beilke, had left the country in March 1973.
The analogy is apt. One of the buzzwords during the latter years of the Vietnam War was “Vietnamization,” which referred to the Nixon administration’s policy of training and aiding the South Vietnamese to defend their own country and continue fighting Communist forces as necessary. The trouble, of course, was deciding when the domestic forces would be ready to fend for themselves—as well as how long we would have to fork over hard-earned American tax dollars to a country most people couldn’t find on a map. U.S. aid eventually stopped, at which point the North Vietnamese were able to take over.
A similar thing happened in Iraq and will happen in Afghanistan. One difference is that Vietnam was and is a marginal country—operating according to the “domino theory,” the U.S. intervened there to stop Communism from sweeping across Southeast Asia, not because Vietnam itself was a strategically important country—whereas Iraq and Afghanistan are important countries that sit in a geopolitically vital region.
Many people have responded reflexively that if only Barack Obama hadn’t pulled out of Iraq so hastily this all wouldn’t be happening. This is true in a very narrow sense: if the U.S. still had troops in the country, it is much less likely that Islamists would have been able to seize entire cities. It is also true (again, in a very narrow, nearsighted sense) that intervening again could be effective in wresting control of those cities back from violent fundamentalists.
But this interpretation misses the forest for the trees. The question is not whether more U.S. troops would have forestalled ISIS, or whether some form of further intervention would be able to push them out. The question is whether it is feasible or desirable to have U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely, since the country shows no signs of adopting the kind of stability and political culture that would make American intervention unnecessary in the long term.
When you ask the pro-Iraq War liberals and conservatives when would have been a suitable time for American forces to have left Iraq, they have no answer. They have no answer because there is no answer. Even if more troops were in the country in an “advisory” role, there would still always be the looming possibility that the Islamist insurgency would, as it is doing right now, rear up and take action. These advisers would quickly be thrust back into a combat role, and more U.S. troops would have to be reactivated and thrown back into urban guerilla warfare. The cycle would continue even if control of the cities were handed back to the Iraqi government. When would it end? Would it end?
So yes, one proximate cause of the Islamist upsurge is a lack of U.S. troops in Iraq. The deep cause, however, is twofold. First, Iraq is a profoundly fractionalized country that sits within unsustainable post-Ottoman borders. (On Twitter, Islamist fanatics are already gloating about the end of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which most Americans, including many commentators, have never heard of.) Second, U.S. foreign policy is based on a bipartisan fantasy, which hinders us from adopting a coherent Middle East strategy. This bipartisan fantasy—it’s believed by conservatives and liberals alike—is that the United States is capable of transforming countries by either military force or international institutions. Those who talk only about “advisers,” “democracy,” or “status of forces” agreements are having the wrong argument; they do not understand (or do understand but can’t bring themselves to admit) that their naive and reckless fantasies helped bring Iraq to the state it’s in now.
The idea of invading a country with a medieval political culture and making it “democratic” is, at least to me, plainly ludicrous. One might as well hold a gun to an American’s head and demand that he forthwith start speaking fluent Mandarin. Nobody actually believes it’s possible, but they must pretend it is so, mainly because they are in the grip of the PC fantasy that all cultures are essentially “equal” and are thus equally amenable to Western-style governance and liberal-democratic social engineering. Absent any organic cultural roots for stability, tolerance, and democracy, it is impossible for a society to transform within such a short time period. Until we relinquish this fantasy we will not be able to handle the realities of the Middle East, or indeed any region.
It is not logically impossible that Iraq will turn into a free, stable, open society. But it is highly unlikely that it will do so in the short term—within, say, twenty or thirty years. Thirty years is a long time for American taxpayers to pay to keep their sons and daughters on the front lines of a foreign civil war they can’t possibly win.
Meanwhile, ignorance of a country’s culture and history can be deadly. I must refer to Vietnam again. During that sad conflict, an Austrian-born scholar named Bernard Fall predicted that the United States would ultimately fail, as the French before them had done, due to Western ignorance of the war’s cultural background. Fall was no pinko: he supported, at least in principle, the idea of rolling back Communism in Southeast Asia. But he continually emphasized, until the day he tragically died by stepping on a land mine during field research, that there would be little long-term success in Vietnam if the United States didn’t recognize the limits of military power in creating political stability. Robert McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense during much of the Vietnam War, revisited these themes in the 1990s, in his searing book In Retrospect. Most people, on both the Left and the Right, do not want to have this conversation because it upsets their most intimately held beliefs about how U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East work.