Back in November 2003 President George W. Bush told the country that the invasion of Iraq was the part of an effort to “spread democracy throughout the Middle East.” Initially, of course, the president had declared that the U.S. attacked Iraq to fight terrorists who possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This specific claim could be fact-checked and indeed it was. Bush’s claims, both about terrorists in Iraq and WMDs, turned out to be false. The follow-up claim about spreading democracy could not be fact-checked. We can’t even be sure if Bush and his neoconservative allies themselves believed in this radical goal of spreading democracy by the sword. Given that most of the regimes the U.S. has backed in the Middle East, including at one time that of Saddam Hussein, were autocracies of one sort or another, one can legitimately have doubts.
However, one thing we can be sure of – the Americans are not the only ones who can launch a crusade based on an age-old idea. Islamic radicals, who may think they are replicating the spread of Islam as it took place in the 7th and 8th centuries, can do it too. And, thanks to the George W. Bush, who opened the floodgates for them, these Islamist radicals are doing just that.
Saddam Hussein’s Culpability
Bush and the neocons could not have created today’s disastrous dilemma in Iraq all by themselves. There had to be preconditions, and for those we can look to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and the Sunni-Shiite divide he encouraged to further his power.
Worldwide, the Sunni sect of Islam is the majority one. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis. However, in Iraq the opposite is the case. Only 9 percent of the Iraqi population are Sunni. The rest are mostly Shiites. Nonetheless, Saddam Hussein was of Sunni background and under his rule the Shiite majority was not trusted and often discriminated against, and their leaders were killed if they showed any signs of political resistance.
The hatred that built up among the Shiites during this period of dictatorial rule came to the surface with the American invasion. Shiite leaders now took over and, with American compliance, turned on the Iraqi Sunnis. That helped spark a civil war that goes on to this day. The present Iraqi government’s anti-Sunni policies are, of course, very unwise, but they are not unexpected, nor are they unpopular among the Iraqi Shiites.
In the current outbreak of violence, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the name of the radical fundamentalist group that has invaded Iraq from Eastern Syria and recently captured the city of Mosul, is also Sunni. My guess is that its commanders imagine they are acting in the tradition of the first Caliphs – God-approved and -inspired. Thus, the nom de guerre taken by the present ISIS leader is Jihadi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Abu Bakr was the Muslim world’s first Caliph).
The U.S. now has two problems when it comes to Iraq: one is how to respond to the ISIS invasion. The other is how to face up to American culpability for the mess in Iraq.
Regarding the first, President Obama has announced that American ground troops will not go back into Iraq except to protect the U.S. embassy. As a consequence it is more likely that Iraq will find substantial assistance from Tehran than Washington. Nonetheless, this is a wise decision. Obama has also urged a political solution. It is hard to know what that means when it comes to the ISIS – like hard-core ideologues of all stripes, they are not compromising types. Probably Obama is trying to pressure the Iraqi government to make amends with its Sunni citizens. That is a very good idea. Reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq is the key to the defeat of ISIS and the country’s future stability.
Then, there is the second matter: how do we face up to American culpability? Pointing fingers at the current president might be politically convenient for repugnant Republicans and neocons, but it is thoroughly ahistorical. The Republican charge is based on the notion that Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq too quickly. The Iraqi army wasn’t ready to stand on its own and we abandoned them.
The charge is simply wrong. The Iraqi parliament itself had voted against allowing American troops to stay in the country beyond the end of the so-called Status of Forces Agreement. Obama wanted to leave a contingent of U.S. advisers in Iraq but decided against it when the Iraqi government refused to grant the advisers legal immunity. There was also the fact that the U.S. withdrawal came as a response to the will of the majority of the American people.
The fact that the Iraqi armed forces were not in good shape at the time of withdrawal was not Obama’s fault. After all the U.S. military, its trainers and advisers, had been in Iraq for years under the Bush administration. And, it can be argued that even if U.S. advisers had stayed during Obama’s time in office it would have made no difference. Take, for instance, the case of Iran under the Shah. From 1954 to 1979 the U.S. supplied and trained the Shah’s military forces. In 1979 that military force collapsed almost immediately in the face of popular revolution.
For U.S. forces to stay in control of Iraq until the indigenous military were professionally capable was to commit to decades of occupation – a scenario unpopular both in Iraq and the U.S. Even then the issue would be in doubt if the political context undermined Iraqi military morale and loyalty to the government. The political situation is key in these matters.
If you want to look for those Americans who have real responsibility for this mess you have to go to those who put American troops in Iraq in the first place. You have to turn to George W. Bush and his neoconservative allies. They are the latest in a long line of American militants who think, much as does ISIS, that they have a mission to set the world straight according to a God-approved plan. Those are the less than brilliant minds who concocted the destruction of Iraq and left it in shambles.
Former President George W. Bush invaded Iraq on the basis of what he now claims was faulty intelligence. But this is disingenuous. He himself insisted upon and then arranged for that faulty information – a fact now conveniently forgotten by himself, his neocon allies, and the media. As usual, the only way the Republicans can blame their opponent – Obama – is by maintaining a purposeful ignorance of past events.
The truth is that George W. Bush and his accomplices are war criminals chargeable with the same indictment brought against the German and Japanese leaders after World War II. I am not talking about genocide, as that was not the charge against these leaders. I am talking about the waging of unnecessary and offensive war – launching an invasion without proper legal cause. Today’s mess in Iraq is a direct consequence of that same sort of criminal act.
If you want to blame President Obama and his cohort for something, blame them for letting his criminal predecessor off the hook. No doubt Obama’s advisers told him that all presidents commit acts that may be criminal in nature and to indict Bush and his team was to set a precedent that might eventually turn around and be applied to Obama himself.
Thus, after a meaningless statement about “no one being above the law,” Obama decided not to pursue a criminal investigation into the murderous operations of George W. Bush and the neocons. “I … have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. …I don’t want them [government officials] to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering up.”
The problem is that “looking forward” only works if you take the past seriously. And in Iraq you can’t understand either the disastrous present or the likely horrid future without acknowledging the past actions the Bush administration. At the very least the media – those responsible for informing the American people of what is going on in the world – might realize this, stop castigating Obama and start telling the unvarnished truth about George W. Bush and his neoconservative allies – the men and women who really brought you the current mess in Iraq.
Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA.