Since President Barack Obama announced his plan last week to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops from Iraq by August 2010, I’ve watched the debate in the U.S. with an increasingly heavy heart. Among the many wise opinions uttered, I can’t find one that seriously addresses what I think is the crucial moral question: If Iraq implodes after 2011, who is responsible?
There are a number of schools of thought on this, some more cynical than others, but almost all equally America-centered — curiously so, since many of the same observers advocate what they believe is an “Iraq-centric” approach.
There are those, for example, who claim that Iraq was already broken in more ways than one when the U.S. invaded. Devastated by 13 years of economic sanctions, the country was divided by sectarian and ethnic faultlines. Conservative Islam was a fact of life, because that was what many ordinary Iraqis, encouraged by Saddam, had embraced to make their pitiful existence more tolerable. Hence, this line of thinking goes, even if Saddam would have been deposed by internal opposition instead of a foreign army, upheaval would’ve been inevitable.
Another school of thought posits that even if we allow that America “broke” Iraq, it can now be said to have been “fixed” to such a degree that the new, unwieldy construct can be handed back to its rightful owners. And if they break it again, well, too bad — superpower glue jobs don’t come with a guarantee.
I have a couple of issues with these arguments.
First, the fact that Iraq was already fractured and bankrupt in 2003 is a poor excuse for making it even worse so. The shock of war unleashed forces that the Americans were ill-prepared to handle and that the Iraqis couldn’t have handled even if they’d wanted to, because they’d been stripped of power. Things may or may not have been different, had Saddam been removed in a domestic coup. But at least the Iraqis themselves would’ve been responsible for making the new order work. The minute the first U.S. combat boots hit Iraqi soil, that responsibility was placed on America’s shoulders.
Second, I find the idea that Iraq is now being “fixed” — or will be “fixed” enough by 2011 for the U.S. to pack up and leave — arrogant to say the least. By all indicators, Iraq is a mess, and there’s no reason to believe it will be significantly less so in 2011. Sticking to his timetable will be politically expedient for Obama, who will be up for re-election just one year later, in 2012; and being seen as the one who kicked out the Americans will do wonders for Maliki’s strongman credentials. But I doubt whether ordinary Iraqis will appreciate the end result.
Why does this matter? It matters because great powers are in the habit of wreaking havoc without assuming any responsibility, but with a new president running one of those powers, I think there’s a chance for improvement. The first step is to recognise that once you choose to change other people’s destinies by force, the responsibility never ends. No matter what convulsions have racked Afghanistan since the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989, Russia will always be held accountable, and for good reason. Do they care? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean the United States should be equally cynical about Iraq.
Of course, there are better ways to show that you care than keeping 150,000 troops in a country forever. But in the wave of relieved punditry about Obama’s speech — about America finally, finally getting out of that dirty, miserable Iraq — I haven’t seen one mention of what exactly those non-military measures would be.
I’ll let Reidar Visser have the last word:
[…] Much seems to hinge on the efforts of some of the top diplomats recently nominated to key positions. There will be ‘sustained diplomacy’ with the aim of establishing a ‘prosperous and peaceful Iraq’, and the United States is going to be an ‘honest broker’, but where is the leverage in this process going to come from? […] Will elections assistance by the United Nations and capacity-building assistance to the Iraqi government be sufficient to deal with the monumental task of getting the Iraqi constitutional process back on track? The withdrawal will not start in earnest until after the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2009 […], but where are the measures that can help turn those elections into the truly transformative moment that Iraq never got during the first try in 2005 – and thereby make the US presence tolerable and perhaps even legitimate in the eyes of most Iraqis until 2010, in a determined but finite political ‘surge’?