There has been government in Iraq since 6,000 B.C. The degree to which the American war there destroyed the country can be measured by the rising level of violence that prevails now, 30 months after the United States withdrew its forces at the end of 2011.
The Iraq war, also known as “The War to Re-elect George W. Bush President,” not only left the country of 33 million severely damaged, but, worse, also left it with a government structure that simply does not work in terms of Iraq’s sectarian composition. More than that, America left Iraq with a situation that guarantees continuing fighting until it finds — or re-finds — a stable status quo.
It remains clear to me that the reason Mr. Bush and his colleagues — Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and complacent, complicit Secretary of State Colin L. Powell — wanted a war in Iraq was because otherwise they saw no means of bringing about the re-election of Mr. Bush in 2004, given the damage he had already wreaked on the economy through his tax cuts for America’s rich and unfunded U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks. None of the other reasons given for the war make sense, including access to Iraqi oil, certainly achievable without war.
Americans have normally been reluctant to change presidents in the middle of a war, starting with Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Mr. Bush needed a war in 2004 to win re-election. Iraq had the bad luck to have been chosen. It wasn’t exactly a sacrificial lamb. Saddam Hussein made it more like a sacrificial wolf, but, in any case, America invaded in 2003 and wrecked the country.
Now, Iraq is showing every sign of internal collapse, accompanied by extreme violence — based in part on traditional Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish mutual antagonism, unbridled by little sense of national identity. The unrest is furthered by an absence on the part of its Shiite majority — roughly 60 percent of the population — of any skill at leadership.
The Shiites, led by prime minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, seem not only unwilling to deal the Sunnis and the Kurds into meaningful unified governing of the country, but also are showing themselves unwilling to build even a coherent Shiite team to lead what is bound to be a challenged government.
That leaves Mr. Maliki’s Shiite team facing the military nightmares that American occupying forces faced in wonderful places like Ramadi, Falluja, Mosul and Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit. Well-armed, near-fanatical Sunni militias are ready to fight to the death to avoid being ruled by Shiites.
The United States may have had in mind training and arming Iraqi forces to deal with such enemies, but, in fact, the Sunnis presented such a challenge to U.S. forces that they eventually had to buy off 80,000 of them to produce the so-called “Sunni Awakening.”
Mr. Maliki’s government either can’t or won’t deal with the Sunnis by that means. Neither its own pockets — nor those of its Iranian supporters — are deep enough to make that approach work.
Plus, the Sunnis are clearly determined to return to the status quo ante and rule the country, as they did before the Americans came up with the bright idea of bringing to power a democratic majority — in this case, the Shiites — not only in Iraq but in the entire Middle East, with Iraq as a “beacon.” From independence in 1932 until the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Sunnis had ruled Iraq, even though they constituted only about 20 percent of the population.
How they were able to do that is a common story in the Middle East, featuring various sandboxes with flags and the role of oil, tribes and armed minorities such as the Israelis, the Sunnis in places like Bahrain, the Alawites in Syria and the Christians in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.
The colonial and neocolonial powers have played a role in who stayed on top in these places. Who would like to argue that France, Italy, Russia, Britain, the Turks and the United States did not play and do not continue to influence the governing game in this region? I am not being critical, and I am basing the contention not only on history but also on my own experiences in Lebanon, Libya and Somalia.
In Iraq, I believe the eight-year U.S. intervention on behalf mostly of the Shiites will prove to have been unsuccessful and that the Sunnis will be back on top again at some point, in spite of external Shiite (Iranian and even Hezbollah) assistance to the Iraqi Shiites. I don’t know how long this will take, but, given the rapid decline in the Maliki regime’s ability to control the country, I would guess only a few years.
For the United States, whatever stake we may feel we have in the Maliki regime and whatever financial gain some Americans may realize from the status quo in Iraq, it is essential that we not resist a return to equilibrium in Iraq: In other words, stay out of it.
The violence there now must not be allowed to re-engage America in Iraq’s internal conflicts and how it balances its competing elements — Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. We have already done far too much damage to the Iraqis and to ourselves through our efforts to shape Iraq’s future.
At least a half-million Iraqis and more than 4,000 Americans have died since 2003. The financial costs to both countries have been monumental. And, according to me, Iraq in a few years will be right back where it was in terms of governing structure when America tried to rearrange the furniture.
Let the Iraq war be seen as an unfortunate period of American interference in the affairs of another nation. Let it now recede into history as an episode, not to be repeated or prolonged. We can do that.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org,412-263-1976).