Thursday, July 24, 2014

Iraq: Executive Summary

If we're to reopen the 2002-2011 debate about Iraq, let's at least try to get back up to speed on what happened over the last 34 years.

Saddam Hussein lit the Persian Gulf on fire with his ambitions for conquest, first with Iran in 1980 and then by conquering Kuwait in 1990 until we ejected his army in 1991.

Saddam used chemical weapons against both the Iranians during that 1980s war and against his own Kurdish population.

During the ceasefire following Desert Storm in 1991, Saddam refused to live up to the terms of the ceasefire, leading to years of low-level conflict with Saddam over the no-fly zones designed to make him obey the ceasefire.

During the Clinton administration, it was the official policy of the United States to overthrow the Saddam regime and replace it with a democracy. Many reasons for set forth to implement this policy.

In 1998, we even launched a 4-day air campaign to degrade Saddam's WMD and missile capabilities.

So don't forget that prior to the Iraq War, Democrats considered Saddam's Iraq to be a threat:

In 2002, in a bipartisan vote reflecting the common view that Iraq was a threat, we declared war on Iraq, adding new reasons to the Clinton-era law justifications.

I set forth my reasons for going to war with Saddam's Iraq in two posts (here and here), neither of which relied on charging Saddam assisted in 9/11. Although anti-war notions that Saddam was at least a secular thug are incorrect. Saddam relied on Islamist nutballs long before al Qaeda entered Iraq to fight with the Baathists to defeat us there.

Yes, despite the war being a bipartisan effort at the start, during the war most Democrats recanted their support and in the Senate even tried to lose the war by defunding it, eager to damage Bush. And recently, many Republicans have done the same, seemingly eager to damage Obama by tying him to his failure to defend stability in Iraq.

Even war supporters speak of failures fighting the war. No war is fought perfectly. But I think it is wrong to see the war as a string of blunders that we miraculously salvaged in the Surge offensive of 2007. The fact is, we faced an evolving series of different wars in Iraq that we defeated in sequence. Broadly speaking, we had the right strategy to win.

The Surge and Awakening built on the past campaigns. People forget that we saw Baghdad as crucial earlier and that we surged forces into Baghdad in summer 2006 but they did not work. Timing mattered for the Surge that worked.

One decision that gets a lot of traction as a so-called failure is that we erred in disbanding the Iraqi army. I strongly disagree. The Saddam army disintegrated on its own, so our order was a pure formality. And if it hadn't evaporated, we would have had to disband it to prevent the victims of Saddam from thinking we were betraying them again, as we had in 1991 when we watched Saddam kill the Shias who rose up in southern Iraq in 1991.

"Disbanding" the Iraqi army did not cause the Baathist resistance or the Syrian and Iranian "invasions," nor did it prevent the Sunni Arabs from switching to our side in the Awakening that began in earnest at the end of 2006.

When the insurgencies and terrorist fights continued, war opponents wrongly charged that the Bush administration had lied about Iraqi WMD, neglecting that every country's intelligence agencies believed Saddam had them, as did Clinton-era officials and members of Congress familiar with the intelligence.

They neglect that if Saddam did not have them when we invaded--and I'm not convinced that he didn't dispose of them in our long-telegraphed approach to war--Saddam was bluffing to hold off the Iranian threat and would have made good on his bluff to get those chemical weapons just as soon as the collapsing sanctions eroded enough. Can you really doubt that Saddam would have rebuilt his chemical arsenal had we not invaded?

Remember, our deal with Syria to remove their declared chemical weapons capability included classes of precursor chemicals needed to make poison gas that were all over Iraq after the war.

So by the standards of the Obama administration success in Syria, Iraq had chemical weapons capabilities when we invaded.

Now, Iraq's Shia-dominated government has alienated many Sunni Arabs and weakened the Kurds's allegiance to Iraq.

I'm astounded that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki is the fall guy for left and right to abandon Iraq. He may not be who we want now. But he had potential and without us there to push him to being who we need rather that what he needed to survive, we bear some responsibility for how he has turned out.

President Obama promised to get out of Iraq and in 2011 he did. I cannot believe that he tried as hard as he could to get the opposite of what he loudly claimed he wanted--a continued American military presence in Iraq.

Indeed, the Obama administration boasted of the success in Iraq. Which is no shock since we won the war.

This despite the fact that a 3-year SOFA was as good as outgoing Bush could get and that it was obvious a follow-on agreement would be necessary. Face it, we left Iraq way too early.

I really am discouraged by the anti-war side's inability to analyze the effect of the war.

But don't forget what we could have chosen had we left Saddam in power.

We won the Iraq War. But then we blew it. But it is not too late to reverse the enemy advances and regain our lost ground in replacing the Saddam regime with a democracy as we pledged to achieve in 1998.

Yes, part of the Iraqi army collapsed. Who should be shocked given the track record going back decades? Kasserine Pass was not exactly a moment of glory for us, you know.

But at least the Iraqi army rallied to fight back. With our support, they can win the war that was not responsibly ended in 2011.

[UPDATE: As a late addition, Eric at Learning Curve has done a lot of work on laying the groundwork for the legal basis of the war and other issues. Tip to Eric.]

The war never ended, obviously, no matter how much our president pretended it had. As I argued since 2011, we could only end our role in the war that continued to be fought at a low level but then snowballed into the crisis we face today.

We can re-win the Iraq War.