Who Lost Iraq?

In a recent op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, Andrew J. Bacevich, West Point graduate and professor of international relations at Boston University, takes up the question that will haunt us for some time to come: Who lost Iraq? As he goes through the likely suspects, his implicit answer is clear enough, but it’s the getting there that is quite interesting and even illuminating.

Bacevich categorizes the various answers to his question according to who is doing the talking: First of all, we have the "dead-enders," who defend the war to this day and maintain – against all the evidence – that it’s the media that is distorting the true situation on the ground in Iraq, where everything, while not exactly hunky-dory, is generally moving in our direction. Defeat is not an option, say the dead-enders, and victory is being withheld not by objective circumstances but by a domestic fifth column:

"Although dwindling in number, President Bush’s defenders will ascribe failure in Iraq to a loss of nerve, blaming media bias and liberal defeatists for sowing the erroneous impression that the war has become unwinnable. Bush loyalists will portray opposition to the war as tantamount to betraying the troops. Count on them to appropriate Ronald Reagan’s description of Vietnam as ‘an honorable cause.’ Updating the ‘stab in the back’ thesis, they will claim that a collapse of will on the home front snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Baghdad as surely as it did in Saigon."

The media didn’t create the fact that, three years after U.S. troops entered Baghdad, we have lost control of Iraq’s capital city – and the situation in the rest of the country is rapidly approaching meltdown. They are merely reporting it. We had plenty of warning about this from military commanders and war critics before the launching of the invasion. The generals told the civilian leadership that the occupation would be risky, and probably untenable in the mid- to long-term. They were ignored.

The neocons could argue that the war would be a "cakewalk," as Kenneth Adelman infamously proclaimed in the run-up to the invasion, as long as our principal enemies were the Sunnis who still supported Saddam and fought to restore the Ba’athist dictatorship. However, the tide – never favoring the Americans – turned completely when the Shi’ites awakened from their long sleep and rose up to demand real elections, rejecting the "caucus" system the Americans initially sought to impose, which would have installed neocon sock-puppet Ahmed Chalabi and his gang as the rulers of "liberated" Iraq.

The Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population, called his followers into the streets and Washington beat a hasty retreat. The elections were held; the Shi’ite parties swept into power, and their party militias began visiting a reign of terror on their former Sunni masters. The results: civil war, Iraq’s slide into warlordism, and American troops increasingly caught in the crossfire.

As predicted in this space, the Americans are turning to their old enemies, Saddam’s former supporters, the Sunnis, to ward off the pro-Iranian Shi’ite majority. The battle against the Sunnis never went all that well, but the U.S. occupiers managed to keep a lid on the chaos with the help of their Shi’ite allies. Now that the terms of the conflict have shifted, however, with the Shia increasingly at odds with the Americans, the war is simply unwinnable. And it is fast shifting gears, from a condition of stalemate to an outright defeat of U.S. forces.

Remember the militarily inconclusive battles against the militia of Moqtada al-Sadr? The U.S. declared Sadr an outlaw and vowed to get him in much the same terms as they went after Saddam. Today, the latter is awaiting execution, while the former, whose Mahdi Army strikes terror in the hearts of Sunnis, is a prominent figure in the Iraqi government.

The balance of power is shifting. Sadr, a radical Shi’ite cleric with a pronouncedly anti-American, super-nationalist stance, is the future of Iraq. This is thanks in large part to his earlier battles with American troops: in a classic example of how the principle of "blowback" works, we made him into a nationalist hero. In any case, we were stabbed in the back, all right – by our former fellow regime-changers. Naturally, they will say that the U.S. stabbed them in the back, perhaps not without justification, but that is neither here nor there: the reality is that we face defeat at the hands of an aroused Shi’ite majority.

The U.S. establishment has slowly come to the realization that the war, as it is presently being fought, cannot be won, and this has given rise to "the buck-stops-at-the-top camp," as Bacevich puts it, currently in the ascendant, which ascribes "the troubles roiling Iraq to massive incompetence in the Bush administration."

"In a war notable for an absence of accountability, demands for fixing accountability are becoming increasingly insistent. Parties eager to divert attention from their own culpability are pointing fingers. Senior military officers target Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Congressional Democrats who voted for the war and neoconservatives direct their fire against Rumsfeld and Bush. The theme common to all of these finger-pointers: Don’t blame us; the Bush team’s stupidity, stubbornness and internal dysfunction doomed the American effort."

Far be it from me to dispute the Bush administration’s inability to carry out its announced intentions, but these were always pipe dreams that couldn’t have been implemented even by the most competent regime imaginable. The U.S. occupation is being defeated by objective circumstances, i.e., the near-complete absence of support from the Iraqi people, and not by the exigencies of American politics. While this may strike a blow at the conceit that U.S. troops are invincible and only need to muster an act of will in order to achieve victory, this mindset is itself typical of the hubris that tempted us to invade in the first place.

I contend that these results were eminently foreseeable, that in fact they were foreseen by the very policymakers who urged us on to war. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Iraqi demographics and the history of the country since the fall of the Ottomans could have confidently predicted the disaster we are seeing. The dynamics of the conflict in Iraq lead, ineluctably, to war with Iran: that is the likely culmination of events, if we stay on the present course. And it is one that the Bush administration apparently has no appetite for, at least at the present time – although some would disagree.

In any event, what Bacevich calls "the conspiracy theorists," the third group of protagonists in the "who lost Iraq" debate, would no doubt argue that the idea is to push the Bush team into taking on Iran. As Bacevich describes them:

"Even before the United States invaded Iraq, critics on the far left and far right charged that powerful groups operating behind the scenes were promoting war for their own nefarious purposes. Big Oil, Halliburton, the military-industrial complex and Protestant evangelicals said to be keen on defending Israel all came in for criticism and even grassy-knoll-style paranoia.

"None of these putative masterminds, however, attracted anything like the attention devoted to the neoconservatives. It’s true that throughout the 1990s neocons clamored for a showdown with Saddam Hussein. In the eyes of their critics, neoconservatives in power, such as Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of defense, and those inhabiting the fringes of power, such as political journalist William Kristol, conspired to hijack 9/11 in pursuit of their own obsessions. And, voila, the country landed in a quagmire."

I doubt whether it was only the "far left" and the "far right" that identified "powerful forces" as being behind the rush to war. It has been clear, to all and sundry, that the neoconservatives were the main driving force pushing the Bushies into a historic blunder. After all, their war advocacy was hardly a secret. If this was a "conspiracy," then it was an unusually open one: as the war debate progressed, there they were – Richard Perle, Bill Kristol, Ken "Cakewalk" Adelman, David Frum, Frank Gaffney, etc., ad nauseam – on every major news program, demanding that the bombing start yesterday. The litany of pro-war talking points was repeated endlessly: "weapons of mass destruction," links to al-Qaeda, and visions of "liberated" Iraqis showering us with rose petals. The War Party spent the better part of a decade propagandizing for invading Iraq, and when the conflict finally came they were its loudest cheerleaders – until the sweet taste of victory and "mission accomplished" turned sour in our mouths, and the neocons turned on their former leader and commander in chief.

"As the endgame in Iraq approaches," avers Bacevich, "the score-settling promises to get downright ugly. Those who observe this spectacle will need a strong stomach." But that’s only if popcorn upsets your digestive tract. Because, at least here at Antiwar.com, we’ll be breaking out the party snacks, the chips and dip, and the drinks, as we watch this vastly entertaining spectacle – the Iraq blame game.

There are so many possible scapegoats, all of them contemptible in their own unique ways: not only the neocons, but the pro-war Democrats who claimed to have been "duped" into voting for the war; the American news media, which donned flag lapel buttons shortly after 9/11 and didn’t wake up until the war started going seriously wrong; and, last but not least, the American people themselves, who initially supported the war, and only turned against it when the allied death toll began to rise and it turned out that the critics they refused to listen to had been right all along.

Oh, I know "the blame game" is supposed to be something bad: in America, no one is ever to blame for anything. No one takes responsibility. It’s all because of our childhood traumas and a lack of "self-esteem." A visit to Dr. Phil will put matters right: I’m okay, you’re okay. Isn’t it time to just "move on"?

That’s malarkey, pure and simple. In the name of justice, the perpetrators of this massive fraud – we went to war, after all, on fraudulent "evidence" of Iraqi WMD – need to be exposed and brought to trial. It isn’t nice to lie to the American Congress and the American people, on a matter so grave – and it’s illegal, too. It’s wrong – and a violation of the law – to submit false "intelligence" to U.S. government agencies and then try to cover the tracks of your lies. You can go to the slammer for exposing a CIA agent and stealing government secrets [.pdf], and that’s what is likely to happen to Scooter Libby and the AIPAC defendants barring divine or presidential intervention.

Ugly? Beauty is quite subjective, and never more so than in this case. As for me, the sight of the War Party getting its just deserts couldn’t be lovelier.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].