Turmoil in Iraq: The U.S. created this mess, they need to own it and clean it up

David vs. David
Soldiers from the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division wait to board a commercial aircraft to deploy to Iraq.

There is an apocryphal Pottery Barn rule: “you break it, you buy it” when referring to a customer damaging a piece of merchandise. The rule has extrapolated to conclude implicitly that those creating damage are responsible for the repairs. (In fact, Pottery Barn doesn’t have such a rule, but it provides a cautionary note for U.S. foreign policy.)

And the case in point is Iraq.

Having expended over 4,000 U.S. soldiers and countless billions of dollars seeking to create a stable, democratic Iraq, we remain on the hook to prevent the impending national collapse under a surge of Islamic militants.


With the best of good intentions, irrespective of brilliant 20-20 hindsight, twice the United States and various military coalitions engaged in combat with Iraq. The first, to reverse Iraqi-Saddam Hussein aggression against Kuwait and restore its independence was widely applauded but stopped short of significant incursion into Iraq. The second, launched in 2003, was prompted by intelligence-driven judgments that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction and was an unacceptable regional threat. This action was highly controversial and, retrospectively was, to put it politely, misguided. Regardless of the intelligence assessments, Iraq had no WMDs, but the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing” completely destroyed the Saddam regime. Subsequently, the United States militarily suppressed/co-opted/bribed various Iraqi religious and tribal factions, creating in the process a governing system characterized by giving long-repressed Shites political power.

[ David Kilgour: Turning a blind eye to al-Maliki's tactics will cause more instability ]

In a League of Women Voters-directed society, Iraq would have moved into a democratic construct providing appropriate political positions and legal-social guarantees for the minority (but previously politically dominant) Sunnis.

Unfortunately, however, the outcome proves that the underdog can be just as vicious as the top dog, just momentarily subordinate. And the Shite political leadership proved maliciously discriminatory with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attempting ineffectively to create a power structure totally dominated by Shites religiously and Maliki’s toddies personally – particularly in the armed forces.

An Iraqi soldier stands guard at the site of a bomb attack in Balad Ruz, in northeastern Iraq.


But it is the utter collapse of the Iraqi armed forces that stunned U.S. government observers. By some accounts, we spent $25 billion training and equipping Iraqi forces over nearly a decade up to 2011. The close to total collapse and rout of Iraqi forces by opponents that are little more than well-armed militia mobs leads one to think “déjà vu all over again” and recall the 1974 disintegration of the Vietnamese Armyalso after a decade of extensive training/equipping by U.S. forces.

One long-experienced combat arms officer with regional expertise dating to Desert Shield/Storm and extended current experience in Iraq offered the following private comments:

Yes, "our" Iraqi Army is a disgrace. A good Iraqi friend uses a termite metaphor that I believe useful. The Iraqi Security Forces suffer from termite infestation  termites representing poor leaders appointed by Maliki on other than professional merit, poor support from the central government, corruption especially among the senior leaders, almost no training since U.S. forces departed, lousy planning due to lack of professional command and control (another Maliki "innovation"), and so forth. The surprise is that the structure crumbled so rapidly when just tapped by ISIS! Most disgusting is senior commanders abandoning their soldiers and fleeing the battle area even before the engagements! ... What a mess!

And one component of the “mess” stemmed from our failure to conclude a Status of Forces Agreement with Maliki permitting U.S. forces to operate in Iraq without fear of idiosyncratic legal charges, and hence forcing de facto departure of U.S. combat/training forces. Two months ago, I asked a senior State Department official responsible for Middle Eastern affairs why we had failed to secure a SOFA? The answer: “I don’t know” and, in subsequent discussion, agreed that our failure to do so, given our blood/treasure sacrifices, was inexplicable.

Now we appear to be edging toward the swamp. Sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Iraq for discussions with Maliki appears akin to sending an arsonist to combat a forest fire.

(Bitterly amusing: we concluded a SOFA over the weekend. Maliki can read handwriting on the wall when his back is up against it.)

Now we appear to be edging toward the swamp. Sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Iraq for discussions with Maliki (given Kerry’s backdrop of failure in Syria, Iran, and Israel-Palestine) appears akin to sending an arsonist to combat a forest fire. Indeed, if we fail to act expeditiously  “paralysis by analysis”  there will be no Iraq to salvage.

It is possible that retreat to a “Pusan perimeter” Korean War-style defensive posture would permit Iraqi forces to reconstitute and reorganize. It will, however, require what has become unthinkable in U.S. administration concepts: deployment of significant boots-on-the-ground U.S. rapid-reaction forces like the 82nd Airborne and Marines to stiffen demoralized Iraqi military, and airstrikes against anything that moves north of Baghdad.

(Photos courtesy of Reuters)

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as advisor for two Army Chiefs of Staff. He has just published Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.