Behind Door Number Three in Iraq
Obama has few good options in Iraq, but the worst choice would be emulating George W. Bush.
Governments around the world—and their expensive yet oddly clueless intelligence agencies—are watching in shock and horror as militant Sunni radicals sweep from Syria into Iraq.
Yet today’s crisis was both predictable and predicted ever since President George W. Bush made it clear that he and whomever he could persuade to join him were going to invade Iraq. That decision was the first in a long train of bad decisions hurtling toward the situation we find ourselves in today. Indeed, the reality of this post-Saddam world can be traced all the way back to the first plans for a post-Saddam Iraq bruited about by U.S. policymakers—in early 2001.
The conduct of foreign policy is similar to a perpetual broadcast of “Let’s Make a Deal,” whose trademark device is for contestants to choose one of three doors, each concealing a prize to be exchanged for something already in-hand. Once the contestant chooses a door, she is committed to the exchange. She cannot reject the revealed prize and try again, although if she gets a truly horrible prize, a “zonk,” she can exchange it for $100 after the show is over.
Foreign policy makers and actors also have resources to trade or spend. The doors they confront have labels—“rescue Kuwait,” “invade Iraq.” What is unknown is the outcome of the course of action lying behind the chosen door.
Unlike the TV show, however, the foreign policy game doesn’t end, and there’s no token cash prize to console contestants who make poor choices (although they may earn large fees by regaling sympathetic audiences with revisionist histories after leaving the studio). While they remain in the game, policy actors are repeatedly confronted by new sets of doors stemming from the decisions they’ve already made. Each offers a narrower range of choices and exacts more in exchange for them. This game resembles moving down a funnel that continually narrows until the decider falls out the bottom or, even worse, gets stuck.
Bush’s doors led to choices that were substantially free, including: “invade Iraq with a coalition of the ‘willing,’” “finish up in Afghanistan and do not invade Iraq,” and “get the United Nations to endorse an invasion of Iraq and help pay for it and carry it out.” The last was the door chosen by his father when he intervened against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Bush the son—with his sidekick, British Prime Minister Tony Blair—chose door number one.
The next set of doors led to post-war reconstruction and reconciliation. U.S. government agencies did their best to provide not only choices, but also predictions of what would happen if various courses of action were pursued or not. Bush chose to let the Iraqis work things out for themselves.
The other doors were not free. All of them would have required a long and substantial troop deployment that both would have diverted money from favored contractors to military members and would have constituted an admission that General Edward Shinseki, who had testified before Congress that the Bush administration had badly underestimated the number of troops it would require to stabilize Iraq, had been right.
The Doors after Saddam
Reconstruction of Iraq proceeded without proper planning and supervision, leaving the country in far worse shape than it had been under Saddam. Meanwhile, the doors facing disgruntled Baathists and desperate Iraqi Sunnis left unemployed thanks to Bremer’s choices led to insurgency, exile, or immiseration. Different actors chose different doors, although the existence of the doors, what lay behind them, and who and how many had chosen door number one to insurgency were furiously denied by the Bush administration.
2006 was not a good year for Iraq or for President Bush. Elements of the Iraqi insurgency reportedly joined forces with al-Qaeda in Iraq, turning a fraudulent rationale for the Iraqi invasion into a post-war reality. U.S. war deaths remained high, and Bush’s approval rating hit a personal low in early May. The 2006 midterm elections substituted Democratic for Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. It was time for new choices in Iraq.
With the insurgency degenerating into sectarian warfare, and in the face of opposition from the House of Representatives and his own generals, Bush chose a door he had gone through twice before: increasing troop levels in Iraq. This time he announced a “surge” of 30,000 additional troops. In the end, they amounted to about 20,000 Army forces augmented by 10,000 National Guard troops because the Army could not spare the full number.
Bush was criticized both for proposing a surge in the first place and for sending too few troops to make it work. As it proceeded on the ground, he was criticized for the rise in U.S. casualties it produced. When General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker reported to Congress about the progress of the surge in September 2007, Democrats disputed their optimistic testimony even as it quieted other critics. By the time that officials announced the first withdrawal of surge troops in November 2007, the surge appeared to have succeeded.
But did it? To Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in January 2007, the door with the offer to send more U.S. troops to protect Baghdad was not the deal he wanted. He was hoping for a “donut” deployment that would put US troops outside Baghdad, allowing his militia-run ethnic-cleansing project inside the city to proceed. As Sunni Iraqis were driven out of the city entirely, or ghettoized in areas surrounded by concrete barriers courtesy of the U.S. military, Shiite Iraqis were moved in, many by Muqtada al-Sadr’s feared Mahdi Army. The ethnic cleansing campaign was responsible for many of the bodies littering Baghdad’s streets. As it achieved its objective, the violence in Baghdad decreased.
Al-Sadr’s militia was highly criticized for the brutality of its operations, which led him to a new set of doors, some offering possible career changes. Al-Sadr announced a “freeze” on militia operations in August 2007. Originally for six months, the freeze was repeatedly extended. Meanwhile, al-Sadr went to Iran, reportedly to study, although U.S. observers believed he had left to avoid capture. The departure of al-Sadr and his militia from the scene removed a major contributor to the violence in Baghdad.
The third contribution to reduced sectarian violence in Iraq was the political maneuvering employed by U.S. Marines serving in Anbar province. Sunni tribal leaders offered to change sides if the Marines would help them fight off al-Qaeda. The tribes’ alliance with al-Qaeda had lost its charm despite continuing economic hardship. Al-Qaeda had found that the militant anti-Sunni policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had opened doors to the takeover of Sunni communities in Anbar and elsewhere. Some of them found openings to cut in on the tribal leaders’ local smuggling businesses, which was particularly resented. The “Sunni Awakening” was intended to slam the doors, leaving al-Qaeda on the outside.
The Marines were happy to work with the tribal leaders. When their successes came to the attention of General Petraeus, he made it into “a national project,” according to the New Yorker. “Ultimately, during 2007 and 2008, the United States Army hired about a hundred thousand militiamen, known as Sons of Iraq, at three hundred dollars per month, to serve as neighborhood guards; the Army eventually expanded the program to include Shia militiamen.” Sunni-initiated violence also decreased. Iraq appeared to be moving closer to reconciliation, allowing President Bush to open the door to an end of U.S. involvement in the fighting and, if not another victory speech, a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) providing for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011.
The story of what Iraq and the United States found on the other side of that door is a long and contested one.
Among its puzzling aspects is President Obama’s decision to apply a surge strategy in Afghanistan which, in the absence of the underlying factors that made the surge in Iraq look successful, was mostly ineffective, with the exception of increasing U.S. casualties. In Iraq, Obama tried to persuade al-Maliki to permit a small deployment of U.S. forces to remain in Iraq after the end of 2011, but he was not successful.
Obama, who had opposed the Iraq war from the start, had promised to end it. Keeping U.S. forces in Iraq without protection from Iraqi jurisprudence beyond the time specified in Bush’s SOFA was not a door he wanted to open. Al-Maliki wanted to show himself as fully in charge in Iraq, a situation that he feared would not last if the Americans’ preference to include his political rival, Ayad Allawi, in the government were part of the deal. The Kurds also avoided being drawn into a power-sharing agreement, and the attempt to recreate a post-occupation of Iraq failed. Al-Maliki rejected the last-minute appeals, and U.S. forces departed on time.
Decisions by Sunnis throughout northern and north-central Iraq not to oppose—indeed, often to join—ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (now IS, the Islamic State), might look puzzling. But these decisions derive from the earlier policies of al-Maliki when he continued excluding Sunni citizens from power and repressing them. It’s no surprise that al-Maliki, an Iran protégé, prefers to rely on Iran and Hezbollah, along with Bashar al-Assad, to defend what is left of Iraq.
The real mystery is why Obama, if not surging back into Iraq, has opened the door to trickling in. Bullied by the veterans of Team Bush, eager to whitewash the storming of door number one that brought the United States into Iraq in 2003, surprised by the collapse of al-Maliki’s army in the Sunni areas he had consigned to their pre-awakening status quo of abuse and isolation behind door number two, he seems to be cracking open door number three and another U.S. attempt to halt the march of ISIS—and al-Qaeda—across Iraq.
But as a younger Obama could have predicted, it is not going to work. In the absence of Marines handing out monthly salaries to Sunni Iraqis and without the newly self-declared caliph of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, taking off for religious instruction in Saudi Arabia, the best Obama might find behind the doors facing him now would be an effective pro-Maliki uprising by the Shi’a in Baghdad and successes on the ground pushing IS out of its current bridgeheads elsewhere in Iraq.
Indeed, this is a door he does not even have to open. Compared to the inadequacy of Bush’s 30,000 military forces in 2007, Obama’s tiny commitment of 300 Special Forces is nowhere near enough to train and equip an army or even begin to end the corruption that has hollowed out Iraqi political and military forces, already shown to be impervious to years of efforts by hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, contractors, and diplomats. His decision to send them is more than enough, however, to tar Obama with al-Maliki’s—and Bashar al-Assad’s and Hezbollah’s—brush.
So, which door will Obama now choose?
The problem with surges is that policymakers find it easier to get in than to get out of them. If Obama continues through door number one—following a pattern going back to the Vietnam War and committing more and more U.S. resources to an incompetent and ineffective regime—he is likely to get stuck in the funnel. Door number two might open onto an international effort to halt the violence and come to some sort of negotiated deal. Door number three opens on to a room where the violent politics that lay on the other side of Maliki’s doors are played out.
The president has said on more than one occasion that the use of military force should not be the first recourse of policymakers. If he goes through door number one, the Obama doctrine will find its end in the sands of Iraq. But in this narrow part of the funnel, every door leads to a prize he is likely to be reluctant to claim.