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Yet another chapter in U.S. foreign policy’s history of ignorant, bloody, expensive, futile, counterproductive attempts to reshape foreign societies ended with Muqtada al-Sadr’s decisive victory in last week’s Iraqi elections. He won despite the U.S government’s all-out support for puppet Prime Minister Haider al Abadi (who came in last), and after a decade and a half of U.S. occupation and war. Its most intense part, “the surge,” was directed largely against Sadr.
On the bright side, the Wall Street Journal reported, in fact, the person best placed and most likely to pursue the one objective that is in America’s own interest: posing obstacles to Iran’s expansion, is precisely Muqtada al-Sadr.
How come? And if so, why did the U.S. government sacrifice American blood and treasure for 15 years to frustrate him? Alas, these questions have a common answer. The Journal reports what our foreign policy community has always known: al-Sadr has always been independent of the Iranians because he has a very large personal following among Iraq’s Shia majority, inherited from his father, who had protected the Shia under Saddam and was martyred for it. But the U.S. occupation correctly saw his rootedness and nationalism as inconvenient to its own plans to remake Iraq in the image of its imagination.
Remembering this failure’s anatomy is especially important for conservatives, because conservatives’ political support for the George W. Bush Administration is what made possible the occupation of Iraq, and especially “the surge.”
What Happened to “We Win, They Lose”?
Within living memory, conservatives had a proud history of common sense about foreign policy. Conservatives agreed with General Douglas MacArthur: “in war, there is no substitute for victory,” and denounced the Acheson/Truman no-win policy in Korea. When the liberal establishment applied the same policy in Vietnam, Barry Goldwater led conservatives to the common sense that if that war was worth fighting, it was worth winning. As Henry Kissinger and the establishment imagined some sort of convergence with the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan recalled that common sense: “we win, they lose.”
In 1990-91 however, George H. W. Bush violated that common sense when he made neither peace nor war with Saddam Hussein, instead doing just enough harm to turn him into the Muslim world’s paladin of anti-Americanism, and to destroy that world’s respect for America. Conservatives opposed Bill Clinton’s half-wars, which further fuzzed the distinction between war and peace. George W. Bush had run for president decrying the loss of that distinction and forswearing the kind of warfare that the establishment had practiced since Korea. And after the 9/11 attacks, Bush had spoken as if he heeded the American people’s mandate to do “whatever it takes” to end the war that the Muslim world’s regimes were inciting against Americans.
In 2003, when George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, conservatives hoped that it was part of a larger plan to face the Muslim world’s regimes with the alternative: stop anti-American activities in your territories or expect America to overthrow you.
Instead, tragically, the Bush Administration occupied Iraq forcibly to fulfill objectives that were self-contradictory (“a united, democratic Iraq”) and impossible—preventing a country with a Shia majority from alignment with Iran by ensuring disproportionate power for its Sunni minority. Pursuit of this nonsense cost America 4,500 dead, 32,000 maimed, and something around $3 trillion.
Under Bush and his successors—alas, today as well, Trump included—the U.S. foreign policy establishment, seemingly on autopilot since Vietnam, has bought and paid for a series of puppet governments which it sought to run through legions of proconsular officials. The foreign policy disasters that this has caused are beyond our scope here.
What “the Surge” Accomplished
Among the deadly political casualties that the Iraq occupation inflicted on America itself was the corruption of American conservatives’ common sense about war and peace. Conservatives proved to be as susceptible as anyone to partisanship’s lures. Bush acted in Iraq much as Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had in Vietnam. But Bush was “one of ours.” He said he was choosing “the tough options.” On Fox News, retired military and commentators supported him. They hailed “the surge” as some kind of reincarnation of the Inchon landing. It had brought victory, which Obama had thrown away by withdrawing combat troops.
Reality was different. “The surge” had two elements: first, ceasing to fight the Sunni insurgents, granting to them effective sovereignty over the areas where they lived, arming them and paying them in exchange for them not shooting at Americans and killing or turning over “extremists” of their choosing, and, second, making war upon those Shia who had taken the fight against the Sunni insurgents into their own hands and was winning. First among these were the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr.
And so it happened that American soldiers killed and died to subdue Baghdad’s Sadr City section, to build and to secure walls separating it from Sunni neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the U.S. government was empowering other Shia factions by giving them control of a lavishly supplied army, and lots of money to buy influence.
This is the Iraq, and the Iraqi army, through which the ragtag ISIS troops sliced as a hot knife through butter. The U.S. military equipment that it abandoned to ISIS enabled it to wreak havoc for some three years. This is the Iraq which largely crushed Kurdistan, the only real ally other than Israel that America had in the Middle East. This is the Iraq that has become virtually an extension of Iran, much to America’s disadvantage. And the foreign policy that has produced it is the one long since programmed into the U.S. establishment’s autopilot.
Whatever else the Iraqi people’s election of Sadr might be, it is a rejection of what the United States has done in Iraq for the past 15 years. It is also the latest of many calls to Americans to turn off our establishment’s foreign policy autopilot.
Photo credit: Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images