WASHINGTON, June 16, 2014 — When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, it was not a threat to the U.S. Based on false information about alleged weapons of mass destruction, and speculation about Iraq’s alleged involvement in 9/11, the U.S. embarked upon a war with a country which had never attacked us. It was as if, some pointed out, after Pearl Harbor we launched an attack on Mexico.
But after more than a decade of bad decisions by both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it is now. Roughly 1,500 jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group considered more radical and anti-American than al Qaeda, outnumbered by more than 15-1 by the Iraqi army, seized the city of Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah. They are apparently now preparing to march on Baghdad.
The rout of Iraq’s army was absolute. Soldiers stripped off their uniforms in the street and fled. The jihadists seized six Black Hawk helicopters as well as plunder from the vaults of Mosul’s banks. They released thousands of prisoners from Mosul’s jails. The Economist reports that, “Two and a half years ago, as the last Americans left, President Barack Obama described Iraq as ‘sovereign, stable and self-reliant.’ Today jihadists are tearing the country apart. Mosul is the second city. On June 10th the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, called for a state of emergency and pleaded for outside help. The next day, in league with the Iraqi Sunnis, ISIS took Tikrit, the home of Saddam Hussein, just two and a half hours north of Baghdad.”
In invading Iraq, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress acted irresponsibly. They passed a vague Authorization for Use of Military Force instead of the congressional declaration of war the Constitution requires.
The media, liberal and conservative alike, displayed wilful credulity, never seeking independently to discover the truth.
The Bush administration and its leading spokesmen, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, falsely told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Tthe opposition party, the Democrats, went along, as did the media.
Liberal commentator Frank Rich points out that:
“It’s the default position of liberals to lay the blame for this apocalyptic legacy, a failing Iraq, unchecked international jihadism, a neo-isolationist America, on the Bushies, who deployed cooked evidence and outright lies to sell the country on the war and then executed their own strategy with breathtaking recklessness and incompetence. “
In Rich’s view:
“The Iraq war cheerleaders on the right, whether think-tank-funded neocon armchair generals or flag-pin bloviators at Fox News, are also easily identifiable culprits in this story. So are those reporters and editors in the mainstream press who at best failed to vet and at worst jingoistically inflated Bush administration propaganda about Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. What tends to be swept under history’s rug is the leading role that the liberal Establishment played in this calamity. A majority of Senate Democrats voted to authorize the war, including the presidential aspirants Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and John Edwards. Most of the liberal pundits and public intellectuals who might have challenged the rationale for the invasion enlisted in the stampede instead, giving the politicians cover.”
Commentator Christopher Hitchens argued that Saddam could be taken out in a surgical military action, “rapid, accurate and dazzling.” The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman insisted that “America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world” in addition to Afghanistan to puncture the “terrorism bubble” and tilt the region “onto a democratizing track.” Peter Beinart, then editor of The New Republic, accused the war’s critics of “intellectual incoherence” and “abject pacifism.” Judith Miller of The New York Times, instead of investigating claims about weapons of mass destruction, accepted them at face value, with no evidence whatever.
Philip Carter, an Iraq veteran and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Society, notes that:
“We now know that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction on March 19, 2003, when U.S. troops invaded…The Bush administration compounded that error with its failure to admit the existence of the insurgency, let alone plan for it, and its failure to provide adequate resources…Senior administration officials made matters worse with their arrogant statements about the war and the troops’ plight…such as when then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz casually dismissed then-General Eric Shinseki’s troop predictions as ‘wildly off the mark,’ or when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld glibly told troops scavenging for vehicle armor in Kuwait that ‘you go to war with the army you have.'”
Iraq was not a terrorist stronghold when we invaded in 2003, but it is today. The Anbar-province city of Fallujah, liberated by American forces in the bloodiest warfare since Vietnam, fell to ISIS earlier this year. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Mark Danner provides this assessment: “The Sunni-Shia struggle set in motion by the American invasion has become the vortex of a violent political struggle that stretches from South Asia to the Gulf.”
President Obama may have inherited a war which never should have been entered into, but his administration left Iraq no better than he found it.
Editorially, The Washington Post declares that, “For years, President Obama has been claiming credit for ‘ending wars,’ when, in fact, he was pulling the United States out of wars that were far from over. Now the pretense is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain…In Iraq, Mr. Obama chose not to leave a residual force that might have helped keep the nation’s politics on track, even as the White House insisted that there was no reason to worry.
Denis McDonough, then deputy national security adviser and now White House chief of staff, told reporters in 2011 that Mr. Obama ‘said what we’re looking for is an Iraq that’s secure, stable and self-reliant, and that’s exactly what we got here. So there’s no question this is a success.’ Now Mr. Obama is applying the same recipe to Afghanistan: total withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2016, regardless of conditions.”
Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister of Iraq, is a polarizing sectarian figure who has excluded Sunnis from his government. In the elections of 2010, the Iraqi people elected a broader, less sectarian coalition. Yet, the Obama administration, working in tandem with Iran, brokered a deal that allowed Maliki to continue. In April, Maliki won an election which was boycotted by Sunnis. Yet the Obama administration continues to provide him with billions in aid. Maliki has gutted the army of commanders he suspected of plotting against him and replaced them with Shiite loyalists. Just after the last American troops left Iraq, in 2011, Maliki ordered the arrest of the Sunni Vice President, who promptly fled. He has used live fire on peaceful Sunni protestors.
The threat from ISIS is growing, and missteps in U.S. policy have assisted this growth. Senior U.S. intelligence officials report that ISIS is now recruiting fighters from other al Qaeda affiliates, including the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Somali-based al-Shabaab.
The true heir to Osama bin Laden, many now believe, may be ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is viewed as “more violent, more virulent, and more anti-American” than al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to one U.S. official. In 2012, President Obama assured the nation that terrorists were on the run. This no longer seems to be the case, if it ever was.
ISIS now has up to 6,000 fighters in Iraq and 3,000-5,000 in Syria, including perhaps 3,000 foreigners, nearly a thousand are reported from Chechnya and perhaps 500 more from France, Britain and elsewhere in Europe. The group has slaughtered Shia and other minorities, including Christians and Alawites, the group to which Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, belongs. It sacks churches and Shia shrines and dispatches suicide-bombers to market-places.
Prior to 2011, ISIS fought as a branch of al Qaeda. Now, its goal is to control territory, dispensing its own brand of justice, and imposing its own moral code: no smoking, football, music or unveiled women, among other things. It imposes taxes in the parts of Syria and Iraq it has conquered. “This is a new, more dangerous strategy since 2011,” says Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordanian expert on jihadist movements.
This also presents a potential threat to the West itself, including America. The man accused of killing four people in Belgium’s Jewish Museum in May was a veteran of Syria’s war. ISIS runs training camps in the desert of eastern Syria. How many of those trained in terror at these camps will return to England, France, the U.S. and other Western countries to put what they have learned to use in our own cities?
It is difficult to see how U.S. policymakers can now undo the damage they have done, but there is too much at stake not to make every effort to retrieve this rapidly declining situation. Unfortunately, the same people who either led us down this path or acquiesced in it are still in charge. Public confidence in our current leadership is at an all time low. When the world’s only remaining superpower appears impotent in the face of the current developments in Iraq, a period of chaos and danger seems to lie ahead.
The answer is not the isolationism, but real leadership. Such leadership, however, seems absent in today’s Washjngton. Continually wringing our hands about developments we should have anticipated, but did not, is no substitute.