What Should America Do in Iraq Now?
The ultimate question about Iraq is not what we have done or not done, who is to blame for where we are, where the Iraqis are, or how we got to this miserable place, but what is morally right – at this time. Our losses are enormous, and so are the Iraqi losses. Our commitment has seemed interminable, the horror and insecurity with which the average Iraqi lives equally unending. But to make the right choices now, we must also see how the road wound to bring us here.
By the time I arrived at the U.S. State Department, in October 2003, the American military sweep into Iraq was long over. Operation Iraqi Freedom’s combat phase, which concluded on May 1, 2003, had taken all of 21 days. The president, secretary of defense, and National Security Council declared the operation a military success. All that remained was mop-up operations, consolidation of another “Allied Victory,” and handing off the country to a “Sovereign People.” Some interim security would be required, a provisional government, then diplomatic relations. What mattered was that Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror was over.
We Americans, and our British, Australian, and Polish allies, were just glad to have been of assistance. We had struck back at al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan first, then neatly pivoted to Iraq, conveniently also in the U.S. Central Command’s Area of Responsibility. The pivot seemed, if somewhat hurried, at least successful. Details of why this timing, together with mixed motivations, and general confusion over beginnings and endings seemed, for the most part, irrelevant. For a fleeting moment, there were celebrations.
As a people, we saw ourselves as liberators. The aim, presumably, was to leave a footprint of peace, justice, and democracy in our wake. President Bush donned a flight suit, flew out to a U.S. Carrier, and declared Operation Iraqi Freedom “a job well done,” adding that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” Over him fluttered a banner, “Mission Accomplished.”
Today, as Iraq implodes eleven years later, we stand and watch with a sense of horror, grief, disappointment, even disbelief. The three leading ethnic forces, the majority Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, appear finally locked in a terror-tipped civil war, at last clashing in a way that to many always seemed inevitable, to some avertable, now just a reality.
The biggest irony may be our false sense of achievement in the immediate aftermath of military operations, a sense that accentuated how little the Bush National Security Council really understood of this complex region, how limited military power can be, and how intractable ethnic hatreds are.
But there are other, smaller ironies, some worth a closer look. They offer perspective, a measure of consolation, even distant hope. Iraq’s incipient civil war is a sad moment, saddest because the people of Iraq – and of the United States and U.S. allies – have spilled so much blood in pursuit of peace. The power of ethnic hatreds should never be underestimated; their ability to blind, distract, and inflame seems humanity’s most vexing enemy, an extract of evil hell-bent on undermining what most people the world over want: just the chance to live in peace with some freedom, to raise a family, breathe the air around them free of fear.
Irony one: one of my first jobs in Colin Powell’s State Department was to set up an infrastructure and begin formally training a new cadre of Iraqi and Afghan police. The mission was as inspirational as it was daunting. To train the Iraqi police, we set up new training centers, one in Baghdad, one in Jordan. These training centers were highly productive, and here is why: Iraqis – of all stripes – universally wanted to believe in the future, a peaceful future. Those who signed up to become police were committed to becoming professionals, to securing the future of their country. This group cared.
How do you know? Well, consider this fact. Between the U.S. State Department’s self-secured facilities in Jordan and Baghdad, we trained more than 54,000 police officers within the first year of State Department operations, and of that, 3,000 new officers every eight weeks in Jordan. They all lived together in peace. In one place, in half a dozen giant buildings, 3,000 Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians lived without serious incident. Our attrition rate in the first two years of operations was less than the entire Ivy League attrition rate combined. These Iraqis ate, slept, worked, and trained together in the desert – as one.
Irony two: the sentiments I heard, talking with these candidates one on one, were identical. To a person, they had suffered grievously under Saddam and wanted to become a whole people again, to secure a place of peace for their families and a place of honor in the world for Iraq. Most knew all about rule of law, because they knew about the 3,700-year-old Babylonian Code, what history books call The Code of Hammurabi. This collection of written laws, arguably one of the oldest ever, was their legacy – and they knew it. More than 2,000 years before Islam came into existence, this code had defined their ancestors.
Irony three: at just the moment when several thousand State Department law enforcement mentors were to spread out across Iraq, completing the process that began at the two largest academies, securing cities from Mosul to Baghdad, the Defense Department decided to use the money for pet projects, quietly convincing the National Security Council and Office of Management and Budget to perform what is called a “top level transfer.” The civilian police mentors were, alas, benched. The Iraqi police, who had expected second-phase field training, got none. By the time the Defense Department realized its error, it was too late. Two years later, military police were deployed to undertake late-game mentoring, but by that time, the original police candidates were all gone. We had the game in hand, and again we fumbled.
Irony four: the entire enterprise could again have been secured – a final time – if we had been prepared to keep the deterrent in check that the Department of Defense, through leaders like the Army vice chief of staff, had requested of President Obama in 2011. At that time, by intense military and civilian effort, the Iraqis had begun to turn the corner. That peace for which the police officers had trained was still within reach. General Keane pressed to keep 23,000 troops on the ground to conclude the effort, in a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government. But he was outvoted by President Obama. The president had a re-election to win, and Iraq could fend for itself.
So, what do we make of the present moment? Iraq is sinking into all-out civil war. Despite the best American intentions, ethnic hatreds are winning again. Despite enormous American losses and a decade of field-level commitments to securing peace in this land, our civilian leaders have again fumbled, underestimated the importance of finishing what we begin and of beginning only what we can reasonably expect to finish. Like his predecessor, President Obama thought there was an easy win at hand, in his case securing re-election by pulling the deterrent that kept terrorism at bay, the minimal presence that would have given Iraqi democracy a chance.
Maybe the Iraqis can do it on their own, but the odds now grow long. Yes, all things being equal, the Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians lived together in our police training centers – in peace, with respect, for a moment holding tight to shared hope. Yes, they still know about the Babylonian Code, that they have a legacy of rule by secular law. Yes, our absence means that there are no more U.S. interagency battles over resources, mentors, or police training – that moment has long passed. Yes, the deterrent provided by a minimal U.S. footprint is also gone. But there is still the distant hope that, by laying down over 4,000 lives and more than two trillion dollars for peace, we have shown a different way.
Finally, there is this: if targeted air strikes can help the Iraqi government regain control over the country, can offer another chance for peace, then we owe it to those young Iraqi police recruits – all of whom are now ten years older, if they are still alive – to give them that measure of deterrence denied by past fumbles. Ronald Reagan might be as frustrated as we all are, but he did give us some valuable, passing guidance. "There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right." For those who must make the choice, the essential question is just that. No more, no less.
Robert B. Charles was Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell (2003-05), clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals, taught law at the Harvard University Extension School, and is author of the book Narcotics and Terrorism (2003). He currently leads a consulting group in Washington, D.C.