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Middle East In Flames
Iraq: What a Way To Go

The Iraqi state in its historic territorial configuration is gone—solid gone, and it ain’t coming back. Time to start thinking hard about next steps.

Published on: June 16, 2014
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  • Maynerd

    Thank you Mr. Garfinkle for your insight. US foreign policy continues zigging and zagging into the abyss. Good grief.

    When you have a dull moment, please pen a piece that reveals a small nugget of good news. Perhaps Fiji isn’t a cluster? Throw us forlorn citizens a bone.

    • Curious Mayhem

      We want something tasty and pleasant to gnaw on for once. Tell us that that penguins in Antarctica are well, climate change and all, and wish us nothing but the best.

  • CaliforniaStark

    Outstanding article. It is ironic that the United States is in a limited way supporting the Sunni opposition in Syria, while at the same time supporting the Shia goverment in Iraq. Nothing good will result from such a confused policy.

    It is a dismal situation now, and it is going to get worse. How long before the mass killing of Shia by ISIS provokes Shia militias to begin slaughtering Sunnis? Will Iran or Turkey intervene? Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the situation is that there does not appear to be anyone in the Obama Administration capable of dealing with this crisis.

  • rheddles

    Interesting he should mention the Ghost Dancers. I’ve been thinking a lot about the potential for parallels between the conquest of North America and the situation in the Middle East. Both involve the confrontation of American individualism with tribal societies that refuse or are unable to assimilate. The conquest of the Indians took almost three centuries, but eventually their tribal culture was rendered harmless. It was not a pretty process. But the result was inevitable once the first settlers established themselves. Not that anyone had a long term plan, but because the forces of history are like those of a river carving a canyon, slow and continuous with occasional dramatic floods.

    With the natives exterminated/pacified, the Americans spent the next century subduing the European and assimilated Japanese tribes and their empires. We have kept troops stationed there for 70 years to maintain the peace. The necessity of this occupation was recently demonstrated both in the Balkans and Ukraine. The occupiers are unlikely to leave any time soon.

    Bush was right to establish a footprint in Baghdad. His error was appointing Bremer and disbanding the Iraqi army. Baghdad is the central location in the Middle East. From it we can play the tribes off one against the other, while slowly letting those who wish assimilate and destroying those who do not. Bush’s other error was in occupying inefficiently. This will be a long process and must be conducted economically. Obama erred in not obtaining a SOFA and thinking he could declare victory and withdraw. Having demonstrated the folly of such a policy, he now has the opportunity to negotiate the SOFA with a more motivated Maliki, reestablish the base in Baghdad, and begin the decades long process of pacifying the Middle East. Whether to choose the path of the Ghost Dancers or the European tribes is the choice left to the natives.

    • Andrew Allison

      Your comment appears to be based on the precept that we should confront foreign tribalism with American individualism. Hasn’t recent history (from Afghanistan to Iraq) sufficiently demonstrated the folly of this? The analogy with the Indian genocide is not a good one: the US is no longer in need of territory occupied by tribal natives (most of whom we had to kill). What we are in need of, and sadly lack, is a foreign policy which protects US interests rather than attempting to impose US values. I concur with Garfinkle that we should support the Kurds in gaining as much territory as they can defend and the the Sunnis and Shiites fight it out between themselves.

      • rheddles

        Hasn’t recent history (from Afghanistan to Iraq) sufficiently demonstrated the folly of this?


        In choosing to support the Kurds you and Garfinkle are suggesting we should ally with the culture most like our own. No argument there. But the Kurds are in the position they are in for a geographic reason beyond their control, they are land locked. For them to flourish, they must have a path to the sea. (A problem they share with the Afghans).

        Our policy of genocide with the Indians is not currently tolerable. So in Europe, we converted the tribes to our values. Our foreign policy there has not so much operated in our interest beyond forgoing costly tribal wars as to impose our values to avoid those costly wars at the cost of a very light and protective occupation. The same policy can be implemented in the Middle East and supporting the Kurds would be a step in that direction. As would allowing the Arabs and Persians to fight each other to exhaustion, wash, rinse, repeat. (The Kurds are Sunni, I believe, so sectarian identity is not the best way to identify the current combatants.) And if the Arabs or Persians get fully out of line, we can find another Sherman, Pershing or Patton to impress upon them the folly of their policy. This is not what we want to do. We didn’t want to get involved in Europe either. But it’s what hegemons have to do or see another culture become the hegemon.

        • Andrew Allison

          How? Surely you jest? After an enormous US expenditure and loss of life, these countries are in worse shape than they were before we intervened. I can’t speak for Garfinkle, but I don’t think the Kurds are any closer to us culturally than the Sunnis or Shias. We should ally with them for strategic reasons — and the only path to the sea which they need is an oil pipeline. While a majority of Kurds are Sunni, “As a whole, the Kurdish people are adherents to a large amount of different religions and creeds, perhaps constituting the most religiously diverse people of West Asia. Traditionally, Kurds have been known to take great liberties with their practices. This sentiment is reflected in the saying “Compared to the unbeliever, the Kurd is a Muslim” (http://www.hum.uu.nl/medewerkers/m.vanbruinessen/publications/Bruinessen_Religion_in_Kurdistan.pdf). In short, Kurds are, first and foremost, nationalists.

          • rheddles

            I was critical of the expense of the effort and aspects of the execution in Iraq. However the cost in lives was not unbearable. We gave up a lot more for a lot less in Vietnam. Had we maintained a presence we would have been in a much better position to influence events in the region. Was Iraq really in worse shape when we left than under Saddam? Really? As for Afghanistan, we should have left within 90 days of the Taliban leaving. It has the same problem as Kurdistan, no ports. The American way of war demands a healthy logistical tail that can only be supported by sea lift. We should not ally with any land locked country.

          • Andrew Allison

            Whether we achieved anything less in Vietnam than in Afghanistan or Iraq is debatable. The North won in Vietnam, the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan, and Iraq is in the process of being dismembered. So yes, except for the Kurds, REALLY worse off than they were (would Saddam or Gaddafi really have caused the death of as many civilians as have died since they were overthrown?). I suggest that the Korean War was the last time the American way of war was effective in terms of changing for the better the societies on who’s behalves it was waged, and we should reconsider it.

          • rheddles

            We stayed in Korea going on 65 years. You’re just reinforcing my point that we should have stayed in Iraq and we should use this as a reason to get back in.

            Saddam could well have caused the death of as many. Look what he did to the swamp Arabs and the Kurds.

            As to Libya, that was a disaster on every dimension. That’s what happens when you lead from behind.

  • Diws

    Utterly devastating article. Until we can get some knowledgeable professionals into America’s foreign policy establishment (indeed, with some tolerance for risk and iconoclasm), it will be difficult to trust the government with any sort of active power projection.

  • ljgude

    “Chiliastic premillenarian?” Sounds like like some species of redundant duplicationist discourse to me, but my oh my I agree with you about what should be done Mr Garfinkle. Oh let’s say the 82nd Airborne into Jordan loudly, publicly and yesterday, plus very quietly every Kurdish speaking Special Ops guy into Kurdistan to figure out what they really need to survive the chiliasts.

    As to you comments about “the U.S. intelligence community as a collections-and-analysis community” I have to say that community is just so important, wouldn’t you agree?

    • 013090

      I quite agree, Garfinkle is a bit tautological at times, seemingly wanting people to perceive him as smart. But nonetheless he is smart. I don’t agree with all of his prescriptions, but for the most part I feel he is fairly spot on.

  • Arkeygeezer

    Like it or not, the present Administration has successfully launched the U.S. on the path of disengagement in the middle east. We cannot get support from the American people or from our allies for any sort of power projection in the middle east other than to protect our own embassies.

    The forces of history are moving in the middle east using the arms that we have supplied one side or another in the past 8 years. To align the U.S. with either the Sunnis, Kurds, or She’a only invites more chaos. This is a choice best left to the natives.

  • wigwag

    A number of questions come to mind; for example, has the United States provided sufficient financial and military support to the Peshmerga and if it hasn’t, shouldn’t we be making up for lost time? Many Iraqi Kurds believe that they have a reasonable claim on Mosul as well as Kirkuk. Now that Kirkuk is back where it belongs, shouldn’t the United States be supporting and even encouraging the Peshmerga to take all of Mosul (not just the Kurdish neighborhoods)?

    Sunnis in Mosul may be making common cause with the ISIL right now to drive out the hated Shia, but you can count on the fact that it won’t be long before the veils, the beheadings and the ubiquitous calls to prayer begin to run a little thin. Isn’t it reasonable to speculate that when that point is reached, a substantial number of Sunnis in Mosul would prefer to live as a minority in a prosperous and largely secular Kurdish State than as subjects of fanatic extremists? Certainly the Christian citizens of Mosul would surely prefer that.

    Michael Rubin among others has done a good job helping Westerners understand that while the Kurds may be the good guys, not all is perfect. There are plenty of duplicitous and corrupt Kurdish political leaders, especially loyalists of the Barzani clan. Given that in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is as good as it gets (by a long shot), wouldn’t it be far more profitable for the United States to use whatever influence it still has encouraging the Kurds to stamp out corruption than attempting the hopeless task of encouraging Malaki to eschew his contempt for Sunnis and Kurds?

    My last question about the Kurds is whether the Peshmerga has even a rudimentary air force, and if not, wouldn’t it be prudent to help them attain one?

    • Andrew Allison

      As noted above, I think the US should be assisting the Kurds (not because they’re “good guys”, but because it’s the smart thing to do under the circumstances) and staying out of the Shia/Sunni conflict. The Peshmerga have some helicopters, and probably don’t need much more than that — they have a plentiful supply of MAPADS, and the Iraqi air force is not much of a threat (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraqi_Air_Force#Current_inventory). More to the point, the Pashmerga are a relatively cohesive, well-equipped and well-organized army. If they decide to take Mosul (which we should quietly encourage), they will.

    • 013090

      The Kurds do have a decent historical claim to Mosul. It is historically more Kurdish than Arab, but under Saddam’s ‘Arabisation’, he effectively turned it into a majority Sunni city. And for claims of sovereignty, the present is more important than the past. So it ties in heavily to what Garfinkle was saying, will ISIS rule more as fanatics or as empire builders?

      If the former, maybe Mosul would prefer Kurdish rule. There are certainly many Sunnis who have made it quite clear they prefer being ruled by the KRG rather than from Baghdad, particularly in Kirkuk province. If Mosul Sunnis come to view ISIS as similarly illegitmate to govern, it could be they will feel similar.

      But in the end they are Arabs, and ideally would prefer Arab rule. If ISIS is thinking long-term, they could really solidify control over the city. But are they? I think most likely they will alienate the locals just as they have done in much of Syria.

      • wigwag

        A good article by Peter Galbraith (John Kenneth Galbraith’s son) about the Kurds in Iraq,


        • 013090

          A good read, and it is right, to have peshmerga assistance will cost a price. The Kurds will have no reason to bring ISIS’s ire upon them at this time, since ISIS is for the most part allowing them to seize Kurdish areas without much contention (which I think is part due to the peshmerga beign formidable, and part the Kurds being mostly Sunni, even though for many they are only nominally Sunni).

          But is Kurdistan ready for independence this soon? The Kurds want independence, but they would probably prefer to wait a few years. They are still financially dependent on Baghdad, and even with their new oil fields, the infrastructure to export it all through non-Iraqi lands is simply not ready yet, and won’t be for several years. So either the U.S./West will need to substantially aid Kurdistan financially for several years to come, or they need to force Maliki into a deal where he allows for the Kurds to use Iraqi oil infrastructure without extorting the Kurds too much. Whether either of those can really become a reality is not known to me. I suppose if ISIS strengthens more though, that Maliki may be up for negotiations. But Maliki would likely rather throw his lot in with Tehran than Erbil, so the situation will have to get a lot worse.

  • Vespassian Chancellor

    “One could continue with examples, but I’d be deliriously happy if just a dozen or so members of the entire U.S. political class understood or even just knew something about any of these historical cases.”

    It is impossible to over estimate the foreign policy ignorance of 99% of American politicians. Or the entire Obama NSC staff.

    The President has said that his foreign policy can be summed up as “don’t do stupid stuff.” He obviously does not understand that as Banhoeffer wrote: Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

    Very good article, thanks!

  • Andrew Allison

    “Above all, we should further tighten relations with the Kurds in what used to be northern Iraq but is now an independent state in everything but name. We probably should try to get on the same sheet of music with the Kurds, offering support but counseling prudence—in other words, collecting some leverage so we can influence the behavior of Barzani et al. in future. Personally, I’m fine with the Kurds in Kirkuk, so long as they occupy and eventually stabilize the city with genuine justice for all of the city’s communities.” Amen to that!

    • Curious Mayhem

      And, this being the Middle East, the Kurds don’t even have to be particularly nice. They just have to refrain from slaughtering the non-Kurds. There’s progress.

      • Andrew Allison

        Not sure whether you are being sarcastic. If the Kurds refrain from slaughtering people on religious grounds, they’re preferable to the savages to their south and west..

  • Pete

    “But partisan shenanigans can’t hide the fact that the George W. Bush Administration is more responsible for it than the current Administration. ”

    Garfinkle got that one right.

    • adk

      How so?

    • EllenO

      It is quite fatuous to apportion blame at this stage. After all one could lay blame all the way back to Alexander the Great who conquered the area and then left it to flounder. The British and French were only two actors in a long lines of ill judged arrangements for the region.

      It is uninteresting and irrelevant where blame lies (which is I suspect everywhere). The point now is what is Obama going to do.

      The world watches (I am not American) and is concerned as the Obama administration seems to be caught like a deer in the headlights. More concerned with frivolities like the name ‘Redskin’ or the latest LBGT silliness.

      The whole things is deeply concerning and Garfinkle’s excellent discussion does not provide comfort. It is almost as if Obama is frozen because the situation is not discussed in Alinsky’s little book. And all the bowing and apologizing as a Muslim outreach program did not help.

      Time for an adult Plan B.

  • Steve Rodriguez

    Great article but disagree with Bush blame. You throw it out there without explaining why, leaving just the one-dimensional obvious that he invaded. Your very article explains this goes back to British Empires gaffes, the hubris of simply drawing the boundaries without ANY strategic thought or recognition of the breakdown of tribes within the Iraqi region. You can go through history and point out Bush 41’s mistake of not removing Sadaam – mistake in the sense of replacing him with a favorable strongman – not going to Baghdad militarily but paying off other general’s to take him out in the post-Gulf War I chaos. Then you can blame Clinton, who had dozens of chances to remove the Bin Laden problem and failed to do so. No 9/11, then the neo-cons have no predicate to advocate moving on Iraq. Assuming Bush doesn’t move on Iraq, ALL of those al qaeda inspired fighters including Zarqawi most likely turn on Saudi Arabia. While many may believe the Saudis are like Pakistan, not really our friends, an unmanaged existential collapse of the oil fields in Saudi Arabia would make current world disorder and the 08 financial collapse look like child’s play.

    Obama came to office with the Iraq War won. He did not negotiate a SOFA because Maliki wanted more than the 3-4000 troop commitment Obama was willing to do and for which our generals said was not enough even for force protection. Obama preferred sticking it to Bush than protecting the hard won victory our soldiers sacrificed for. He drew red lines and did not follow through in Syria. Assad and Putin laughed. Gaddafi was evil but he had cut a deal with us and renounced terrorism. Instead we led from behind and now Libya is in chaos and a terror breeding ground. In every corner of the globe, Obama’s action or inaction has destroyed US interests. Say what you will about Bush: he supported our friends, attacked our enemies, called evil by its name, protected the international liberal order, and stood for strength in the face of bad guys. Obama alienates our friends, helps our enemies, calls evil man-made disasters, doesn’t care about the collapse of the liberal world order since it was created and protected by America, and has been feckless and weak in the face of bad actors.

    So while the left is one dimensional typing from their parents basement, and are fond of saying “dude” on national TV, and prefer a summit on the voting rights of the LGBT oppressed, real Americans know that ALL of the global disorder sits at the feet of this President. We can only hope a real man, a real American, caring about this country, can get elected in 2016, if its not too late.

    • Andrew Allison

      Exactly. Regardless of the causes (I think that the root cause was the post-Ottoman carve-up), Obama has been in command for six years, and clearly owns the current mess.

      • Curious Mayhem

        Yes … but the Iraq wasn’t won in 2009, just stabilized. Granted, Obama hadn’t a clue about the dangers and let an unstable situation slide — just as with Syria — until only bad choices remain.

  • aachrisg

    It’s hard to imagine someone I could possibly trust more for policy advice on Iraq than a former speechwriter for Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice. Not.

  • Angel Martin

    “By the same token, we should begin private and earnest, if inevitably complex and difficult, talks with the Turks to discuss what conditions, if any, could lead to a mutual and simultaneous recognition of Kurdish independence from Washington and Ankara.”

    this is a non starter for Turkey, why would they ever agree to this?

    any improvement in iraq has be based on reality, rather than the wishful thinking that has gotten us to here.

    forget the fancy theories of political settlements, job one has to be establishing a force that can protect the green zone – it does not exist right now

    (NY Times had a story from last week where green zone troops are wearing civilian clothes under their army uniforms)


  • Curious Mayhem

    I hate to act like an online editor, but here goes: “… despite it’s very poor judgment in leaving Iraq without trying hard enough ….” — the “it’s” should be “its” — thanks.

  • Curious Mayhem

    BTW, it seems ISIS/ISIL issues annual reports, just like any other international terrorist group:


    I guess someone, somewhere, wants to know how his money is being used and what the ROI is: mayhem, deaths, apostates killed or converted to the True Path, etc.

  • Anthony

    So, what’s to be done while acknowledging roots of the English defined “Arabian Chapter problem”?

  • Joel Morin

    I really enjoyed this for the depth, perspective, boldness and humor it provided. How you were able to bring humor to this subject is either a testament to your great writing skills or my dark sense of humor.

    Either way…I just disagree a bit about the Saudis. They are not our friends. Either are probably any of those Gulf kingdoms. No, lets be even more brutally honest. Our only TRUE ally in the Middle East is Israel. But calling them an ally is iffy. Israel only cares about Israel. They haven’t done much finger lifting during the entire time we have been ripping the Middle East a new one. Do they care? Nope…. So actually we have no allies there.

    Just my opinion.

    • hacimo

      The jews love you. Don’t worry on that score.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I thank Adam Garfinkle for a splendid overview of the disintegration of a shotgun marriage in Iraq between a Sunni Romeo and a Shi’a Juliet and their two family tribes and the incoherent and reactionary U.S. policy by an administration always wanting to do social work rather than realpolitik. However, I have some questions possibly other commenters would venture answers to.

    Wasn’t the Iraq War not really about Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the first place but a geopolitical strategy of indirect war to hold the Islamic Revolution in Iran from spilling over into Saudi, Paki, Turkey, and elsewhere? (Just as the Iraq War was fought for geopolitical purposes to protect Japan from a domino effect of Vietnamese or Chinese Communist expansion)? Arguably, the Iraq War was fought under the pretense of eliminating WMD’s, a threatening tyrant, and implanting democracy, but weren’t the real goals always geostrategic?

    Bush/Cheney apparently picked the *low hanging fruit* of Iraq and Afghanistan to “drain the swamp” instead of provoking war with Iran (Islamic fundamentalism), with the Saudis (oil), or the Pakis (nukes), the latter two of which plausibly were complicit in 9/11 in order to provoke us to fight their war for them.

    Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in Book II, Chapter 9 of his Discourses: “this method of starting war has always been common among the powerful and among those who still have respect for both their own word and that of others. For if I wash to wage war upon a prince with whom I have long-respected treaties, I can attach one of his friends with more justification and excuse than I can attack the prince, knowing for a certainty that if I attach his friend he will either resent it (and I shall fulfill my intention of waging war upon him) or not resent it, in which case he will reveal his weakness or lack of faith by not defending one of his dependents. Either of these two alternatives suffices to lessen his reputation and to facilitate my plans.”

    Is Iran’s reputation, weakness, and lack of faith in defending its dependent Shi’a ruled state now tarnished? Have the objectives of indirect warfare now played out some ten years after the U.S. invasion? Intentionally or inadvertently is the Sunni resurgence a check on the puppet Shi’a state in Iraq? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions but would be interested in hearing from the other commenters who are probably more knowledgeable with this issue than I.

    When Saigon fell in the Vietnam War it was perceived as a symbol of America’s loss of the war. Au contraire, the U.S. won the long war with North Vietnam by holding Communist expansion in check, albeit not in South Vietnam. Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan (“the Asian Tiger” nations) embraced Capitalism and became peaceful trading partners. Even China eventually embraced Capitalism, albeit a Crony-Capitalist version under socialist rule. Unlike Asia, however, there is no obvious spread of Capitalism of which I am aware at least in Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, etc. Of the four responses to modernization — nationalism, socialism, traditionalism, and post-modernism — isn’t what we are seeing a return to “chiliastic” and “revivalistic” tribal nationalism under the banner of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that is thus unlikely to spread?

  • hsaper

    There is only one problem is this fine analysis. It is this: “We should, on the other hand, rapidly and boldly move to support Jordan,
    which is dealing with a backbreaking refugee crisis. We should reaffirm
    our commitments to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait; we should
    let the nasty Bahraini and mischievous Qatari regimes guess our
    attitudes toward them.”
    Obama has lost all credibility. What world leader would trust Obama and the US after five years of this kind of leadership, if one can call it that? Therefore, this suggestion will not fly. Obama can do exactly as you suggest, but no one would trust it. In any case, we are likely to get nothing more than speeches and small gestures from the liberal messiah.

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