How Iraq Became the Graveyard of the American Way of War

Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), has aspirations of advancing southward in an effort to overtake the capital of Baghdad- Google Image

Islamic State (ISIS), has aspirations of advancing southward in an effort to overtake the capital of Baghdad- Google Image

Danny Cooper*

Brisbane, July 2, 2014 (Alochonaa): As attention shifts back to the violence besetting Iraq, it is worth reconsidering what caused this eruption of violence in the first place. It is certainly true that regional factors have inflamed the violence, especially the ongoing civil war in Syria. It is also the case that Nouri al-Maliki has governed as a religious sectarian who has not accommodated Iraq’s Sunnis.

Yet what is happening in Iraq today should also tell us something more about the American way of war. Iraq, in fact, has been the graveyard of two sets of ideas about how the United States should fight its wars in the twenty-first century. The first set of ideas played no small part in creating this mess, the second simply created an inflated sense of optimism about America’s capacity to reshape the domestic politics of other states. The discrediting of these ideas has created a tremendous uncertainty about how the U.S. should employ its power abroad, evidence of which can be seen in the debates surrounding the Obama administration’s response.


Rumsfeld wanted a clinical war that would be swift and decisive- Google Image

First, whatever goals America had going into Iraq in 2003, there was little doubt about how they intended to fight. Bedazzled by his perceptions of a revolution in military affairs, Donald Rumsfeld, America’s then Secretary of Defense, was in charge of America’s war plan. Rumsfeld firmly believed that America could rely on precision guided munitions and a light footprint to depose Saddam from power. Rumsfeld wanted a clinical war that would be swift and decisive. He had little patience for those talking about nation-building.

As U.S. policy-makers quickly discovered, however, getting into Iraq was easier than getting out. When the Americans removed Saddam from power, there was no plan for the aftermath: the collapse of law and order, widespread looting, the destruction of important cultural sites, all contributed to making Iraq resemble a Hobbesian state of nature. “Freedom is messy,” Rumsfeld explained. Less sympathetic observers such as Thomas Ricks claimed that Rumsfeld’s war-plan was “the worst war-plan in American history.”

Yet as Iraq descended into chaos – reinforced by Paul Bremer’s decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and fire tens of thousands of Iraqi civil servants – the limits of Rumsfeld’s way of war became obvious. However swift the initial victory, however impressive the removal of a tyrant, it meant little unless the U.S. was willing to police the streets of Iraq and rebuild the country. Absent an ongoing military presence, Iraq looked set to be engulfed by a Sunni led insurgency rebelling against the empowerment of Iraq’s Shiites.

Oddly enough, President Bush recognized this and quickly began emphasising the importance of creating a democratic state, even more so after America could not find the elusive weapons of mass destruction that Saddam allegedly had in his arsenal. While Bush was widely lampooned for standing in front of a banner on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln declaring “mission accomplished” in May 2003, he also redefined American goals in a more expansive way in this speech, promising, “The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort.” Rumsfeld disagreed, explaining in his memoirs: “That was not the way I understood our plan.”

Of course, it would take Bush many years to reverse course and embrace a war-plan that was capable of improving the security situation in Iraq. It was not until Iraq descended into a brutal sectarian civil war in 2006-2007 that some within the Bush administration began to look for alternatives. This search was made easier by Rumsfeld’s departure after the congressional elections in 2006, when the Secretary of Defense left the administration nursing a battered reputation, taking with him his costly ideas on military transformation.

In fact, Rumsfeld’s war in Iraq completely discredited the idea that the U.S. military could fight swift and clinical wars against its rogue state adversaries without making the necessary commitments in blood and treasure. “You break it, you own it,” Colin Powell is said to have told Bush on the eve of the invasion. Rumsfeld was willing to break it. He was not willing to own it.

Enter David Petraeus. A graduate from the Social Science Department at West Point who wrote his PhD bemoaning the U.S. Army’s post-Vietnam lack of attention to small wars, Petraeus was both an intellectual and a soldier. He spent time in the Balkans in the 1990s sharpening his state-building skills, he promptly applied these skills when he first arrived in Iraq and commanded the 101st Airborne Division in 2003, and he returned to the U.S. as the security situation worsened, re-writing the army’s field manual on counterinsurgency warfare.

His achievements were immense. He would launch an internal rebellion within the U.S. Army; he would convince a sitting president to embrace his ideas on counterinsurgency; and, in the words of Fred Kaplan, Petraeus would “redefine the American way of war,” at least momentarily. His strategy was as simple as its execution was hazardous. Far from relying on American firepower to achieve victory (the initial U.S. response to the Sunni insurgency), his goal was to win “hearts and minds” by encouraging U.S. forces to live amongst the Iraqi people, to protect them from insurgent attacks, to help them rebuild vital infrastructure and institutions, and to work with local leaders to collect intelligence about insurgent activities. This was classic counterinsurgency. In his own writings on COIN, Petraeus emphasizes the importance of a whole of government approach to rebuilding failed states, claiming, “everyone must do nation-building.”

While Petraeus had some success in reducing the violence in Iraq, the limitations in counter-insurgency have now become obvious. The surge was only an interim measure, a measure aiming to improve the security situation so the political process could move forward. This goal has obviously not been achieved and once again demonstrates a simple truth: that the United States cannot permanently station troops abroad in countries deeply divided along sectarian lines. After all, Petraeus’s strategy was high risk, exposing U.S. forces to greater dangers as they lived amongst the Iraqi people and shielded them from insurgent violence. Counter-insurgencies sound good in theory (who wouldn’t want to win hearts and minds?) but they come at a much higher cost, a cost that democratic publics are often unwilling to pay.

So what will the United States do about the rise of ISIS? Obama’s response presages the way the United States will respond to these wars: U.S. forces will be sent to protect diplomatic personnel (lest we witness a repeat of Libya); U.S. special forces will advise, assist, and occasionally participate in raids against militant groups; and the U.S. may employ its drones – Obama’s weapon of choice – to prevent hostile forces from taking over strategically important regions.

Obama will most certainly be attacked from the right for not doing enough just as he will be attacked from the left for his ongoing use of U.S. special forces and drones. Such criticisms, though, tell us as much about the confusion over how America should henceforth employ its power as they do about the standard partisan differences in Washington D.C. And that’s just one of the many consequences of the 2003 Iraq War.

 *Dr. Danny Cooper is the Editor, American Foreign Policy ,Alochonaa. He is a senior lecturer at Griffith University in American Politics and American Foreign Policy. His book Neoconservatism and American Foreign Policy: A Critical Analysis was published in New York by Routledge in 2011. His review article Lessons from Iraq: the agony and ambivalence of an American liberal was published by the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

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