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Slouching Toward Iraq

What America's history of nation-building tells us about our failures in Iraq.
U.S. Marines enter a palace during the Fall of Baghdad. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. Marines enter a palace during the Fall of Baghdad. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On December 11, 2011, the last American combat troops present in Iraq withdrew across the border with Kuwait, ending the nine-year war that cost the United States 4,500 soldiers and billions of dollars. The exit marked a momentous, celebratory occasion, fulfilling at least in part President Barack Obama's campaign promise to bring to a close the twin wars he inherited from the Bush administration.

But nearly four years later, Obama's withdrawal seems, at times, as premature as the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner that flew on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 when George W. Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq. After months of Islamic State militants washing over the weakened Iraqi government and flourishing in war-ravaged Syria, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Tuesday that the U.S. is pivoting toward "direct action on the ground" to stem the rising tide of Islamic terror, the Associated Press reports. While the Pentagon refused to characterize the operation as "U.S. boots on the ground," per MSNBC, Carter said that the military expects more "raids" like the dramatic hostage rescue mission by U.S. Delta Force earlier this month, with contingents of specialists focused on "opportunistic attacks" against Islamic State forces.

The invasion and "re-construction" of Iraq failed to meet all the requisite goals to actually precipitate a pullout.

While the U.S. still has about 3,300 troops in Iraq in defense roles protecting military assets, this certainly doesn't reflect a massive ramping up like the 2007 "troop surge" that sent 21,000 combat troops back to Iraq. It is, however, a re-orientation to an offensive posture, and a major stumbling block for a president currently enjoying a political hot streak in the twilight years of his administration. After being lambasted in 2011 by Republicans and members of his own administration for prematurely drawing down troop levels, Obama delivered a stern rebuke: There would be no more boots on the ground. "As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq," Obama said. "After a decade of massive ground deployments it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries' futures. And that is the only solution that will succeed over the long term." Four years later, Obama is all but eating his words.

The problem for the Obama administration was that any chance of "success in the long term" without a strong military presence in the nation was made virtually impossible by the very nature of the Iraqi intervention. According to an extensive analysis by the RAND Corporation of America's post-World War II occupations and post-conflict nation-building—from Germany and Japan to Bosnia and Kosovo—substantive, effective nation-building is not out of the realm of possibility for the U.S. government. The invasion and "re-construction" of Iraq simply failed to meet all the requisite goals to actually precipitate a pullout. Obama's withdrawal was doomed to regress to combat operations, if only for one reason: The invasion and dismantling of Iraqi institutions set him up to fail.


Based on decades of U.S. foreign and international public policy, the RAND Corporation's report, "America's Role in Nation-Building," is indeed an essential "beginner's guide" to nation-building—the process of building a stable government and civil society, bound together by a national identity. In the report, former diplomat and RAND head of international and security policy James Dobbins and his colleagues examine some basic building blocks for helping dictatorial or post-conflict nations transition to democracy. Security obviously tops the list; military or international civilian police forces are crucial, as is the institutional and economic investment in building a local police force and stable judicial system. But humanitarian and economic assistance, the report found, tends to be the wildcard for building a coherent civil society: While Germany and Japan required a massive military presence after World War II due to the sheer scale of the conflict, the relative economic wealth of those countries helped hasten the transition to democracy. By contrast, "no post-colonial program of reconstruction could turn Somalia, Haiti or Afghanistan into thriving centers of prosperity," due to ethnic and socioeconomic divisions that made economic stabilization unsustainable. Bosnia and Kosovo, with a combination of military force, support from international military coalitions, and moderate economic development, were considered "moderate successes" by RAND, although major ethnic tension remains to this day.

In Iraq, the Bush administration failed to establish any of the necessary pre-conditions for local institutions of government to take root. The U.S.-led international coalition's decision to disband the Iraqi army shortly after the 2003 invasion has been linked to the breakdown of regional security, allowing sectarian tensions to fuel the Iraqi insurgency. Twelve years later, analysts have argued that the decision not only forced the Iraqi government to start from scratch, but effectively handed over some of the best soldiers and commanders to the Islamic State. It would make sense for the U.S. to attempt to weed out Saddam Hussein loyalists in a sort of anti-terror de-nazification, but even U.S.-trained troops had trouble taking on advancing Islamic State militants in the strategically important city of Mosul in 2014. Hell, the U.S. had 143,800 troops in Iraq at the peak of its military campaign, more than any other RAND nation-building case study except for Japan and Germany; they simply weren't there long enough.

The economic re-construction of Iraq and its requisite institutions has long been deemed a failure. The Special U.S. Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction's 2013 report found that some $60 billion in aid has been largely squandered by corruption and wasteful projects, rather than actually re-building Iraqi civil society. The "one bright spot," as the Huffington Post wrote at the time, was that the $20.2 billion spent on training and equipping Iraqi security forces "managed to keep Iraq relatively stable despite rising political tensions and sectarian violence," an incredulous statement now. Some $8 billion, or 15 percent of U.S. aid, effectively went missing. "Washington spent more than $15 billion to try and improve Iraq's power and water supply, revive its schools, and repair its roads and housing," scoffed the Center for Public Integrity's R. Jeffrey Smith in 2013, "[I]t spent another $9 billion on health care, law enforcement, and humanitarian assistance."

And what did that money yield? "Households—as recently as 2011—still got an average of only 7.6 hours of electricity a day," Smith continued, "and a sixth of Iraq's citizens lacked access to potable drinking water for more than two hours a day."

The Bush administration failed to establish any of the necessary pre-conditions for local institutions of government to take root.

Unfortunately, the SIGR report didn't become public until 2013, well into President Obama's second term, after his politically non-negotiable withdrawal. Obama had staked his reputation and his pathbreaking 2008 campaign on a promise contrasting him with Imperator Bush. But the recent failures of U.S. nation-building in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan (the U.S. and its allies "have put 25 times more money and 50 times more troops, on a per capita basis, into post-conflict Kosovo than into post-conflict Afghanistan," the RAND Corporation's Dobbins notes), when taken under the historical shadow of Vietnam, had also made any chance of Obama possibly continuing the nation-building process extremely unlikely, especially when saddled with an intransigent Congress and a crucial presidential election for the Democratic Party. Obama's apparent reversal on the Iraq exit isn't a problem with policy, but a problem with politics: Sending thousands of troops and more aid back into Iraq to finish the job right would be the equivalent of Bush the Elder's "no new taxes." It would sink Democrats for the foreseeable future.

I suspect Obama knows this. The U.S. military's ever-expanding campaign of drone and airstrikes have been an after-the-fact reconciliation of the necessity of U.S. nation-building support, coupled with an inability to send specialists and experts back to distant battlefields. But the military's long-distance tools of war have suffered serious setbacks in recent weeks. The "accidental" airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan has severely undermined the efficacy of death from above, while a damning investigation based on leaked documents released earlier this month by the Intercept revealed that 90 percent of the people killed in the Obama administration's drone strikes were not actually the intended target. The illusion of a War on Terror without soldiers and engineers, contractors and administrators, has been broken. The U.S., reluctantly, is slouching toward Iraq.

The sad truth, as Dobbins points out, is that active nation-building supported by international powers is an essential part of restoring war-torn nations—and the U.S. simply phoned it with Iraq. It's not like the U.S. hasn't undertaken this task more recently: The Clinton administration conducted a major nation-building intervention nearly every two years, while the Bush administration launched its two nation-building enterprises in Iraq and Afghanistan within 18 months of each other. "It now seems clear that nation-building is the inescapable responsibility of the world's only superpower," Dobbins writes. "Once that recognition is more widely accepted, there is much the United States can do to better prepare itself to lead such missions." Sending troops back into Iraq is a choice no one wants to make, but, from the looks of it, it's the only right choice—if not for the American people, then for the innocent Iraqis simply trying to get on with their lives.