No Easy Conclusion For Long, Costly U.S. Role in Iraq
Hopes were high in 2003 when the United States and its allies invaded Iraq, ousted Saddam Hussein and declared their intention to free the Iraqi people. But the task hasn’t been quick or easy.
Today, violence and bloodshed are still widespread in Iraq, and terrorist attacks and suicide bombings are commonplace. There are deep sectarian divisions, especially between Shia and Sunni Muslims. The country is highly dependent on overseas aid. It often seems to be caught in a downward spiral.
The central government controls the capital city of Baghdad, but it has much less control in the rest of the country. In some areas, it has no control at all.
Iraq has had some success in developing a constitution. And the Iraqi military seems to be improving its capabilities and has had some success, albeit with significant support from America and other allies. It succeeded this summer in expelling ISIS from Fallujah and is attempting to retake Mosul.
But Iraq’s single-commodity economy remains sluggish. Oil accounts for 99 percent of Iraq’s exports and 90 percent of government revenue, and trends in oil prices have not been favorable. Iraq’s modest military success has not been matched by much progress on the political and economic side.
The United States continues to have a strong presence in Iraq, including about 5,000 troops and considerable intelligence gathering activity. We are using drones to collect information and even to target terrorist leaders. We have invested heavily in training Iraqi forces. We have hundreds of bilateral agreements with the Iraqi government spelling out the terms of our support.
Our involvement is costing a lot of money. By some estimates, we have spent nearly $1 trillion in Iraq since 2003, and the spending continues at the rate of billions of dollars a year. We also continue to incur casualties. Some 4,500 Americans have been killed in Iraq and 32,000 Americans wounded.
We have a heavy stake in Iraq’s success, even though there is now broad agreement that the U.S. invasion was a mistake, driven in part by faulty intelligence regarding Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. We failed to follow up effectively after driving Saddam from power, and we mismanaged the post-intervention period.
Some critics of our current policy seem to have analyzed the problem quite well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have found the solution.
They want us to develop and train a viable Iraqi ground force, one that is more capable of securing the country and defeating ISIS. To do this, they propose committing as many as 5,000 additional U.S. troops.
They call for more sustained support of the Iraqi government and increased diplomatic engagement to promote new power-sharing agreements. They want a more effective Iraqi government that can provide essential services. And they want to foil any effort by Iran to expand its influence in the region.
These ideas are only modestly different from the approach being pursued by President Barack Obama. Although he declared an end to U.S. combat operations in Iraq in 2011, Obama has recently sent more troops to the country. U.S. airstrikes take place in Iraq as well as Afghanistan and Syria.
Critics of Obama’s policy say we should do more and do it better. But this won’t be easy.
First, there is the obstacle of U.S. domestic politics. After 15 years of continuous war, including 13 years in Iraq, do the American people want to keep up the fight? Are they willing to lose even more American lives for an objective that doesn’t seem clear? Do we have the national will to stay actively engaged in Iraq for decades, if not generations? Domestic politics will make it difficult, if not impossible, for any president to sustain the commitment of the vast resources required to prevail in Iraq.
Second, Iraq is part of a much larger set of challenges in the region. The problems of Iraq can be found in Afghanistan, Syria and Libya and across the entire Middle East. We can’t address the Iraq problem in isolation, and this hugely complicates any action we take.
Washington can no longer deal individually with all the nations in the region that are in turmoil and desperately need help. A solution will require a regional approach and an overarching strategy carried out with a number of partners, including Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and probably Russia. We have to bring all countries with an interest in the region to the table. But we find it difficult to trust and work with some of these countries, Iran chief among them.
Finally, critics of administration policy offer prescriptions with few specifics. What sort of power-sharing agreements do we want and how do we achieve them? How do we improve government in a country with deep sectarian divisions? How much money should we spend and for how long?
In Iraq, policies are easy to propose but incredibly difficult and expensive to implement.
In 2006, the Iraq Study Group report concluded there was no “magic bullet” to resolve the problems we had encountered in Iraq. Unfortunately, the same is true 10 years later.
Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Senior Advisor, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana’s 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.