Why We Lost Baghdad

by Bing West
Obama’s vision for global balancing meant Iraq would fail.

The Sunni jihadists who have seized northern Iraq are led by bold, determined, murderous zealots. But the rank and file are unemployed, untrained, murderous teenagers. In pickup trucks, they raced south from town to town, firing rifles in the air. There were no battles or tests of resolve. The jihadists, formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq and now called ISIS, did not win by force of arms. Rather, the Iraqi army dissolved, for two reasons.

First, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had replaced competent leaders with Shiite party hacks whom he controlled. They had no incentive to fight and abandoned their troops.

Second, the Maliki government apparatus has systematically stolen public funds. The army was rarely paid. The officers thus reverted to their selfish ways, selling off fuel and other commodities while ignoring or shaking down their own soldiers. The soldiers had no reason to fight.

The Shiite army in Sunni land was as strong as an empty eggshell. 

Mr. Obama responded by publicly linking any U.S. military support with political outreach by Maliki to the very Sunnis whom he has oppressed for the past six years. Maliki was expected to humble himself in front of his aroused Shiite supporters, with no chance of a realistic response by the Sunnis now controlled by the jihadists. By making a demand that could not be met, Obama justified doing little to nothing.

His passivity was a conscious political choice, not forced by a lack of effective military options. U.S. airpower can dominate the flat, open battlefield of Iraq. Over the course of three wars, as a Marine grunt, I have watched American surveillance and precision-air-strike capabilities advance to an astonishing degree. Real-time video enables our drones to select and strike any pickup among the 200 or 300 jihadist vehicles that form the vanguard threatening Baghdad.

Yes, the jihadists can partially conceal their weapons. But they cannot safely roar down any highway in an armed cavalcade. If six vehicles were destroyed one day, seven the next, etc., then within ten days, every driver would wonder when his time was coming. Once the teenagers fear being tagged by the finger of death, caution will replace exuberance.

However, bombing from afar accomplishes no salutary political end and can worsen the global image of America. From Maliki’s perspective, air strikes with no Americans on the ground would be ideal. His political power is not threatened, and the strikes impede the progress of the jihadists. Some civilian casualties are inevitable. This will antagonize the Sunni tribes that came over to our side in 2008 and now believe that we abandoned them in 2011. Air strikes would thus do little for America but would strengthen or please Maliki.

Drone strikes make no sense in isolation. Air power must serve a strategic political goal — and the goal here is to replace Maliki with a leader and a movement dedicated to Shiite–Sunni power sharing and comity. The Shiite repression of the Sunnis, led by the Maliki faction, caused this conflagration. For America to try to broker such a political upheaval would require boots on the ground to manifest our power — air controllers, advisers, and a protecting force. Then the Iraqis would see that America has not abandoned them.

But if we do that, then we are involved in combat. Air controllers on flat ground call strikes 200 to 800 meters to their front, meaning they are in direct firefights, which means casualties to friendlies, enemies, and civilians. If the controllers are in helicopter gunships, they are safe, unless the jihadists have anti-air missiles, but civilian casualties are still inevitable.

Having pulled out, rushing back in now is a high-risk option. Maliki might retain power, regardless of what we do. Plus, the Iraqi army can be resurrected only by eradicating the systemic corruption of the Baghdad political elites. On top of that, the fighting has already led to the suspension of plans by Western oil companies to sign long-term agreements, meaning that Iraq’s oil infrastructure will continue to decay. This means we pay the bill for our involvement, amounting to tens of billions. To turn Iraq around, any renewed American military presence would have to remain indefinitely.

Mr. Obama has every incentive not to become involved in Iraq. His domestic constituency is opposed. Reforming Iraq will take years and has a good chance of failing. Our commander-in-chief distrusts our military leaders, and the White House staff routinely excludes or ignores our senior military commanders. Our secretary of state talks casually about coordinating with Iran. Good grief. It is simply unrealistic to expect Obama’s National Security Council to shape a firm, coordinated policy-military plan to install a sensible government in Iraq.

What, then, will save Baghdad?

Weather. For the beleaguered Iraqi government, heat is a stronger ally than the Iranian Republican Guards or Shiite militias. The noontime temperature in Baghdad for the next ten days is forecast to range between 105 and 112 degrees. No jihadist force can fight on the offense in that heat for more than three hours in the morning. In the August 2004 battle for Najaf, the attacking battalion of U.S. Marines resorted to IVs to keep the assault moving forward. The ISIS units lack water in sufficient quantities for sustained battle. They can proceed forward only as long as the government forces flee rather than hold a position.

The current battle lines, give or take ten or 20 miles and a few cities or towns, in other words, are likely to remain where they are for the rest of the summer. The jihadists have no logistics. They are teenagers far from home who must take food and tea from the locals.

However, even while the immediate threat to the Iraqi capital dissipates, the geopolitical consequences of the jihadist blitzkrieg have yet to be felt. American authority and influence in the greater Middle East is in free fall, and no other power can exert a stabilizing influence. While battles and car bombings will ebb and flow, an intense political struggle will accelerate, both inside Iraq as Maliki tries to hold power and across the region as Saudi Arabia and Iran vie to gain allies.

The odds are that Maliki will be forced out within a year, because he has lost the confidence of his Shiite base. But his departure won’t change the larger dynamics. The trends point toward a persistently sectarian Shiite government aligned with and pressured by Iran. The Iraqi army simply cannot push the Sunni jihadists out of Iraq. The Kurds will solidify their state. The Sunni Islamist rump state in northern Iraq and western Syria will be more chaotic than consolidated, because it lacks a financial base and a sustainable economy. It remains to be seen whether, as in 2004 and 2005, the Islamists oppress the Sunni tribes. If they do, fighting will break out among the Sunnis.

American influence has suffered a huge blow. We mistakenly disbanded and then laboriously re-created the Iraqi army, only to leave before the military as an institution had solidified. In 2008, President Bush agreed to a status-of-forces agreement that would withdraw all our troops by 2011. In his memoir, he wrote that his decision “had the blessing of Generals Petraeus and Odierno.” That assertion is highly dubious.

In any event, Obama completed the pullout, despite the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs to leave a residual force. Whatever Iraqi army reconstitutes in 2015 will harbor ill will toward America, because we left them in the lurch.

The same is true of the hapless Sunni tribes. In 2007 and 2008, they came over to the side of the strongest tribe — the American military. They told us they distrusted “the Persian government of Maliki.” We paid 100,000 of them and reassured them. But once we left, Maliki oppressed them. So in turn they tolerated the reemergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Sunni tribes will not again trust America.

Nor will Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. They are convinced America intends to cut deals that strengthen Iran at their direct peril.

Obama’s hazy view of foreign policy envisions regional balances of power — in the Middle East, East Asia, etc. Each region will supposedly find its own balance. America will have a bigger role in some regions than in others. But America will not act as a superpower, with an overarching and stabilizing weight based on hard power when confronted by violence.

That vision of America was not how the post-WWII world worked. For the past seven decades, America has acted with authority and power in every region of the globe. We made some mistakes. But any dispassionate evaluation of trends in global stability, open commerce, worldwide transit, individual freedoms, and economic growth would credit the American Era with enhancing our lives and those of billions across the globe.

Regrettably, the Obama belief in American retrenchment is not his alone. When he released five senior Taliban in return for an American soldier, Hillary Clinton strongly defended his action.

“These five guys are not a threat to the United States,” Ms. Clinton said. “They are a threat to the safety and security of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s up to those two countries to make the decision, once and for all, that these are threats to them.”

So if terrorists are not deemed a threat to us, we don’t care if they are a mortal threat to others? As long as we are safe, that’s all that counts. That is an infelicitous — not to mention myopic — argument to be made by a former secretary of state.

The phrase “perfidious Albion” was coined in 1793 by a French poet outraged that England had allied with the European monarchies against the French Revolution. As the Obama administration dips and dodges among multiple crises, never steadfast, let us hope a poet does not pen such a damning phrase about us.

— Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense for international affairs, has written seven books about the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.