Since 2004, John Tirman has been executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies, where he is also principal research scientist. He is author or coauthor of fourteen books on global affairs, including The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars (Oxford, 2011). He is a DAWN Fellow.
Thirty years ago, President George H. W. Bush initiated Operation Desert Storm, a formidable response to Saddam Hussein's invasion and occupation of Kuwait in August 1990.
Thus began the long, tortuous entanglement of the United States in Iraq. This involvement—in effect, a thirty years' war—has taken many lives and left Iraq a ravaged country. It presents a challenge for Joe Biden as he assumes the presidency—namely, how to disentangle. In its history lies many lessons about the arrogance of power and the temptations of empire. Most of all, however, it spells out a more modest idea: when you start a war, the consequences are wholly unpredictable, and often tragically so.
Even in that first "success," the results of the quick expulsion of Iraq's army from Kuwait were surprising. Among them were a humanitarian crisis in the Kurdish north, a faulty ceasefire agreement with Saddam that allowed him to viciously suppress a Shia rebellion in the south, and deadly sanctions that were imposed during the war but remained in force for the next twelve years.
Those sanctions became stage two of the U.S. presence in Iraq. (Some would say it was the third stage of a forty-year war, beginning with President Reagan's fulsome support of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War.) In effect a war by other means, the sanctions not only caused scandalously high child mortality, but corroded Baghdad's control of the provinces and gave rise to politically powerful local sheiks and imams. This centrifugal dispersion of political power and legitimacy had far-reaching effects in the 2003-2011 war, when a violent and persistent resistance to U.S. forces sprang up locally.
That third phase, "Operation Iraqi Freedom," which Senator Biden voted for, was predicated on Saddam's alleged programs to build weapons of mass destruction. No such programs were found. But this excuse for war, based on fabricated evidence, gave way to a democracy-building project devised more-or-less on the fly. Because the country quickly devolved into a civil war, the political goals were imposed from the top—the top being American occupiers who desperately scrambled to cope with the chaos and insecurity throughout Arab Iraq.
Meanwhile, ordinary Iraqis loathed the U.S. presence; their lives were endangered and disrupted. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the acute 2005-2008 violence, and as many as five million (one in every five Arab Iraqis) were displaced by the violence. Hospitals, schools, water and sewage systems, electricity, and other vital services were battered.
The next phase—the rise of the Islamic State—was the bastard child of the U.S. invasion and operation. Sunnis disgruntled with Shia rulers were drawn to the extremists in much the same way that they aligned with dozens of resistance groups in the 2003-2011 war. They regarded fighting as defensive, against the invaders and then against Shia revenge. The extremism of a "caliphate" emerged from the sanctions phase and the most violent years of the U.S. occupation. As witnessed in the Bosnian conflict and elsewhere, war tends to harden and intensify ethnic and sectarian identities.
Iraq is now in a desultory phase of official corruption, continuing contagion of militias, and disruption by neighbors and the United States. After an American drone was used in Iraq to execute Qasem Soleimani, the most important of Iran's Revolutionary Guard leaders, the Iraqi parliament demanded that U.S. troops withdraw from their country. President Trump responded by threatening sanctions and demanding that Iraq pay for a U.S. airbase there. "We will charge them sanctions like they've never seen before ever," Trump crowed. "It'll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame."
That the United States must threaten the government of Iraq with sanctions in order to keep its contingent of 5,200 troops there is a fitting conclusion to these thirty years. Unwanted, ineffective, and dishonest, the United States is reduced to such petty haggling. A partial withdrawal has since been announced, though it's unclear what the purpose of remaining troops will be in such a fraught atmosphere.
The issue of sovereignty also signals another phase of an underlying rationale for our long military presence in the country, and that is containment of Iran. During the Reagan years, this was quite explicit when the US supported Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war. Since the 2003 invasion, it has become a key piece of Washington's strategy, another one that is failing. Iran-backed militias and politicians continue to play a prominent role in just about anything that happens in the country.
Among the "careful what you wish for" puzzles of these thirty years are the reasons for this heavy, morally troubled, and costly involvement in Iraq. James Baker, secretary of state at the time of Operation Desert Storm, succinctly described it as "oil." The security of Israel was also a Washington staple. The WMD ruse had a good run, being the prime rationale for twelve years of sanctions as well as the 2003 invasion. Democracy building became the fallback position when the WMDs were unfound and Iraqis failed to greet us as liberators, but it has been a fool's errand in view of Iraq's poisonous politics and vast corruption, one of the worst in the world.
These events add up to a history of breathtaking failure and half-baked efforts to rectify the shambles of American intervention. Likely more than one million civilians are dead as a result of the sanctions and the American invasion. Poverty, displacement, and social dissolution continue to plague the country. Sectarianism remains vicious. ISIS festers. Iran's influence is high and unyielding. Did anyone in 1990 or 2003 expect these results? Did Biden?
The unpredictability of war and sanctions is one lesson. But many others are worth considering. The arrogance of belief in hard power. The news media's acquiescence. The day-to-day dishonesty of government officials about actions and intentions. The indifference of the American public to Iraqi suffering. The sacrifice of our own men and women for such brittle and often duplicitous reasons.
What Biden will do in Iraq and the broader region is unknown. He has a penchant for intervention, but if any historical fact of the last 75 years demonstrates the futility of military adventurism, it is Iraq. We owe Iraq reconstruction assistance, to be sure, but a further military role in the country is a fool's errand. Some fresh thinking about how our role in Iraq affects other, related issues—the Syrian civil war and the long failure of U.S. policy toward Iran—is in order. A long process of dialogue with these and the Gulf monarchies, Turkey, Lebanon, and others about the region's security might bear fruit if the American predisposition to control events and roll back the Iranian revolution were cast aside.
This is not the first time U.S. officials have had to face costly failure. The American interventions in Korea and Vietnam were similarly catastrophic. With these three decades in Iraq, we learn again a cardinal rule of post-1945 conflict: War, and its aftermath, are both a capricious and unforgiving master.
Photo caption: BAGHDAD, IRAQ – DECEMBER 15: U.S. military personnel bow their heads in prayer during a casing ceremony where the United States Forces- Iraq flag was retired signifying the departure of United States troops from Iraq at the former Sather Air Base on December 15, 2011 in Baghdad, Iraq. United States forces are scheduled to entirely depart Iraq by December 31, there are currently around 4,000 troops remaining in Iraq. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)