Iraq War Was Lost the Day It Started
If we "cut and run" from Iraq, Republican senators argued recently, we will lose our credibility, dishonor the memory of those who have already died there, break our promise to the Iraqi people and settle for something less than victory. The United States does not quit that way. So Republicans will run in November against dishonor, flag burners, gay marriages, the New York Times, the Supreme Court and the Democrats who want to lose Iraq (just like they ran a half century ago against Democrats who "lost" China). Will it work? Sure it will.
In fact, the United States did cut and run in Korea and Vietnam. It did settle for something less than victory in these two wars. The United States did abandon the North Korean and Vietnamese people. It did dishonor the dead soldiers, if withdrawing from an impossible conflict does dishonor those who have died. Some of the senators know that. Most of the American people, ignorant as they are of history, have forgotten.
However, the truth is that Iraq was "lost" the day the war started. It was an artificial country like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, stitched together after the Great War. The British forced its rebellious tribes together with bombs and poison gas. They left the minority Sunni tribes in charge. They ruled brutally through eight decades, viciously suppressing the Shiite majority and other tribes, particularly the Kurds in the north. Saddam Hussein was merely the logical conclusion of the cruel dictators who ruled before him.
When the American invasion brought him down, it destroyed the Sunni establishment and gave power to the Shiite majority. It also confirmed the Kurds' determination that they didn't want to be part of Iraq anymore. Moreover, they had 100,000 well-trained and well-armed troops who would defend Kurdistan from any invaders.
Thus, as Peter Galbraith writes in his The End of Iraq, Iraq ended for all practical purposes when the Americans arrived. To exacerbate the centrifugal forces, the United States did not send enough troops, did not try to stop the looting --particularly of weapons, did not plan for a postwar policy and sent arrogant amateurs to administer the country.
However, the Kurds already have an independent country, the Shiites have established their own regional governments with close ties to Iran and the Sunnis have launched a civil war. Eventually, the Sunnis will form their own enclave and continue the civil war in areas they share with the Shiites, especially Baghdad. No foreign army is capable of policing these areas of continuing conflict. The central government that we have created will at best be able occasionally to mediate among these independent enclaves.
Those who knew anything about the history of Iraq were predicting this outcome before the war. The president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, and the swarm of neoconservative intellectuals around them did not know Iraqi history and paid no attention to those who did. The pretense now that the war in Iraq can still be won displays the same criminally arrogant ignorance of the Bush administration before the war. Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are still not speaking the truth, perhaps not even to themselves. Neither are the senators who will run against the Democrats (and probably win) on the platform of victory in the war.
Galbraith has been around Iraq long enough to know that the first Bush administration supported Saddam in his war with Iran, providing weapons, equipment and intelligence, some of it in support of poison gas attacks on the Iranians. He also remembers that the previous Bush urged the Shiites and Kurds to rise up against Saddam after the Gulf War. He and his advisers did not believe that they would take him seriously. Hundreds of thousands died. The people of Iraq have very good reason for hating Americans.
Most Americans will not read books like The End of Iraq. They know almost nothing of the history of this artificial country, which is all right because they don't know much about the history of their own country, either. The president doesn't even read memos his staff prepares. Most of the important people in the government don't have time to read. Therefore, having ignored the lessons of history, they repeat its mistakes. Americans will continue to die in Iraq because no one making decisions could bother reading its history.
© 2006 Andrew Greeley