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Disengagement in Iraq

While I was traveling in China, President Obama announced that American troops will soon be withdrawn from Iraq, and the State Department is following suit. The New York Times reports that a number of planned diplomatic missions in Iraq will be scaled back or closed, partially for budgetary and security reasons:

Those plans have now been shelved or indefinitely postponed, and pleas from some Iraqi leaders to open diplomatic offices in the Shiite-dominated south, where Iran wields outsize influence, were summarily rejected.

Taken together, the shrinking of the United States’ military and diplomatic ambitions underscores the reality that a post-America Iraq is taking shape more rapidly and completely than many Iraqis and Americans had envisioned. That has heartened many Iraqis and Americans, weary of more than eight years of war and occupation, but left others fearful. […]

The discussions over the last year about America’s future role in Iraq, both within the United States government and between the two countries, have laid bare the diminishing ability of the United States to shape outcomes in Iraq, as well as a relative lack of interest in a Congress consumed by domestic issues.

“I guess very thoughtful people believe there should be some residual presence in Iraq,” said Mr. Hill, who now runs the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. “But there are many Americans who don’t want to hear the word ‘Iraq’ and are not really behind a continued presence.”

This draw-down emphasizes one of the biggest mistakes of the Iraq endeavor — our failure to engage with the people of Iraq and its civil society. Although the military aspect of the mission were of course important, our goals went far beyond simply defeating Saddam Hussein — we wanted to ensure that his rule would be replaced by a more open society that could benefit both America and the region as a whole.

The Bush administration’s poor leadership in getting us into the war and the spectacular error over WMD that tipped the scale for intervention ensured that the war would be a divisive force at home.  Worse, the chaos, disarray and bad planning that turned the early stages of the occupation into a dismal mess and opened the door to the bitter Iraqi civil war both embittered and damaged Iraqi society while deepening the gulf between American intellectuals and civil society activists and the Bush administration.

Nobody is to blame for this alone, but the result is a terrible loss for the US and for the people of Iraq and the whole Middle East.  Our universities and our civil society groups should have jumped into Iraq.  Far more Iraqi students should be studying in the US.  More Iraqi faculty should be teaching or engaging in research here.  If security conditions didn’t permit contact in the country, we should have brought more Iraqis out to mix with international civil society.

The Saddam tyranny had cut Iraq’s intellectuals, educators, professionals and journalists off from the world.  We could and should have done more about that.  This would have helped Iraqis think through the questions they faced in reconstructing their society, but in no way would it have imposed an American agenda on them.

Unfortunately, we missed many opportunities to do this. After deposing Saddam, we should have done much more to help Iraqis rebuild the cultural and economic institutions of the country.  Above all, we should have done more to promote the non-bureaucratic, people-to-people exchanges and cooperation that over the centuries Americans have done best.

True, there were serious security problems with this kind of cooperation.  One Team Mead associate was shot four times as he returned from participating in a democracy building program with Iraqi students and there were plenty of other incidents of this kind.

These days, the security situation is still dire but more could be done — as the Times article notes, the State Department had ambitious plans for on-the-ground diplomacy in Iraq. Yet this is too little, too late; nearly a decade has passed and opinions on both sides have hardened. Many Iraqis now want Americans out as soon as possible, and many Americans feeling war fatigue and concerned with the situation at home are more than happy to oblige.

It is not quite too late; both supporters and opponents of the war should be able to agree that the US ought not walk away from Iraq without doing the best we can to provide the next generation of Iraqis with the educational tools and skills that will help them rebuild their shattered society.  Limited as our postwar diplomatic role is likely to be, American institutions and individuals can still do our best to help Iraqis rejoin the world on the best possible terms.

It is surely the least we can do.

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  • Kenny

    “Far more Iraqi students should be studying in the US. More Iraqi faculty should be teaching or engaging in research here. If security conditions didn’t permit contact in the country, we should have brought more Iraqis out to mix with international civil society.”

    No, no, no.

  • stephen b

    I was a USAF officer with the 82nd ABN when we went into Iraq in ’03. After the apparent rapid military success in those opening weeks, it was clear that a substantial shift needed to take place requiring civil engagement. Our military at that time was not structured for that task. Very few other elements of USG were equipped for “nation building” either and more to the point, had no intention of getting into that business. I remember my boss at the time saying to me that it was now time for the khaki wearing polo shirt crowd to take over. To the extent that didn’t happen led to many of the problems that came later. Remember those State department employees who complained about taking posts in Iraq? The military, on the other hand, tried to re-shape itself into something that could continue to handle combat operations as well as help build a more civil society.

  • Matthew Brotchie

    Its funny, on the conservative side I’m hearing alot of “Iraq should pay us back for giving them their freedom” rhetoric from both FOX NEWS and several GOP candidates. I find that notion both noxious and with no conception of reality.

  • Toni

    Don’t be surprised if the next 9/11 is caused by Muslim terrorists operating out of some Iraqi backwater.

    That lesson comes to us from the fabulous book Charlie Wilson’s War, by 60 Minutes producer George Crile. In the 1980s, Reagan and the Democratic Congress were at furious, very publicized odds over funding anti-Communist fighters in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Meanwhile, the very liberal Congressman Charlie Wilson (D-TX) quietly had the CIA direct a multi-billion-dollar war against the Soviet army then occupying Afghanistan.

    It was “the largest covert operation in CIA history,” and it succeeded magnificently. The last Soviet soldiers left Afghanistan in 1989, a decade after they’d invaded.

    Afterwards, Charlie Wilson tried very hard to get Congress to publicly fund a billion-dollar, long-lasting rebuilding program. No dice. The Afghans sensibly concluded that Allah had won the war for them, and Muslims worldwide that Allah could win them a war against the US. Hence the Taliban and al Qaeda and 9/11 — and how many billions spent over the last decade on our own Afghan War?

    Yes, we should have an intensive, ongoing presence in Iraq to bolster its American-sponsored democracy in a region with precious few of them. President Obama should appreciate the Afghan lesson and make the case to the American people that, having torn the country apart, we owe it to the Iraqis to stay — and that staying would greatly behoove Americans’ national security.

    Instead, he finds it expedient to forget history. The rest of us are left to pray we’re not doomed to repeat it.

  • Mark B

    “This would have helped them think through the questions they faced in reconstructing their society, but in no way would it have imposed an American agenda on them.”

    This strikes me as very naive. This type of radical change does not happen without thorough destruction of the old order, which in Iraq was very strong having survived in the most poisonous environment for a long, long time.

  • Luke Lea

    “Nobody is to blame for this alone.”

    Bush was to blame.

  • peter38a

    The question isn’t staying or leaving. The question is what would be a viable plan for putting these countries or any future countries on the road to a liberal society? And I’m not accepting anything like we should do more arm linking and singing around the camp fire. May I see something that has even a better than 50% chance of success?

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