What's Worth Reading About Iraq

Let's hear from some people who have earned the right to be listened to.
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ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria. ( Wikimedia )

The big difference between the pro- and anti-Iraq war camps a dozen years ago was not about the odiousness of Saddam Hussein, nor (with the exception of exaggerated "smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud" scare-talk) an awareness of the damage he could do in his own country or elsewhere. 

Instead the difference turned on whether you imagined that an armed invasion, by the world's dominant high-tech military, working mainly on its own (since it had failed to amass UN or broadly allied support), was on balance likely to "solve" the problem, much as the Civil War "solved" the problem of Confederate breakaway and World War II solved the problem of Nazi Germany. Or whether, on the contrary, an American invasion was unlikely to make things better, likely to make them worse, and certain to entangle American lives, fortune, diplomacy, and honor in the resulting unsolved mess for many years to come. 

If you believed the former, you could be confidently pro-war. If the latter, the reverse.

Last night I pointed out that many of the people who had cocksurely argued in favor of the war were now resurfacing unchastened to offer "expert" views. Now let's consider views from some people who by contrast have earned a claim on our attention, in particular about Iraq.

1) William Polk, and Chuck Spinney. I've mentioned them before, many times. William Polk—a longtime scholar and diplomat whose first Atlantic article about Iraq was published in 1958—for his views on Syria and Afghanistan and related themes; Chuck Spinney—a longtime and prescient defense analyst whom I first wrote about in National Defense—for his views on strategy in all theaters, from American politics to the Middle East.  

Now they are together, with Spinney providing an introduction to a new essay by Polk about America's largest strategic choices. Sample from Spinney:

This week Mr. Obama opened the door to the possibility of bombing ISIS Jihadis in Iraq to support the floundering Shi’ite government we installed.  Yet, as Patrick Cockburn of the Independent has reported, the ISIS Jihadis in Syria and Iraq are coalescing into one proto-caliphate in their common Sunni areas. [see map at top of this item].  

This raises the real possibility that we could end up arming and bombing the same Jihadis.  Such a development would increase the potential of unknowable blowbacks throughout the entire region, especially for the Kurdish ethnic groups in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, as well as the state of Turkey itself.

Sample from Polk, on the American predilection for military "solutions" to international problems:

The rate of success of these [military] aspects of our foreign policy, even in the Nineteenth century, was low.  Failure to accomplish the desired or professed outcome is shown by the fact that within a few years of the American intervention, the condition that had led to the intervention recurred. 

The rate of failure has dramatically increased in recent years.  This is because we are operating in a world that is increasingly politically sensitive.  Today even poor, weak, uneducated  and corrupt nations become focused by the actions of foreigners.  Whereas before, a few members of the native elite made the decisions, today we face “fronts.” parties, tribes and independent opinion leaders.   So the “window of opportunity” for foreign intervention, once at least occasionally partly open, is now often shut.

Both very much worth reading. 

2) Graham Fuller, a long-time CIA analyst of the region. In a new essay called "Why America Should Let Iraq Resolve Its Own Crisis," he writes:

There is no way Washington should attempt to reenter this Iraqi agony again. The U.S. already destroyed the political, economic and social infrastructure of Iraq, turning it into an anarchic free-for-all of every clan for itself.... There is no longer any state to provide protection. And you do not dare turn your security over to an untested, untrusted new state structure for a long, long time....

Iraq, perhaps with help from its two neighbors [Turkey and Iran], must come to terms with its own internal crisis. It can do so; sectarianism as a guiding obsession is not written in stone. Strong sectarian identity currently reflects the insecurities and fears of a complex society in chaos and political and social transition. 

U.S. intervention, already once disastrous, can only delay the day when Iraqis must deal with each other again. We cannot fix it. Television images of ISIS aside, the problem belongs to the region more than it does to us.

This counsel doesn't easily fit the part of a political speech or a talk-show segment where you are supposed to say, "Well, we have to do something." But it fits the history of the past dozen years, and long before, much better than most "do something" exhortations have, especially when the somethings involve troops, bombs, and drones.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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