Iraq: we were right to go in; we should never have left; and now we’ll have to go back

Nothing inspires schadenfruede and second-guessing like a nation gone to hell – and it appears that’s where Iraq is heading now. ISIS, previously known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, is swallowing up as much of Sunni-populated Iraq and it can, while Tehran is offering “assistance” to the ever-shady Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This has led those who opposed the 2003 liberation of Iraq to insist that they were right all along, while proponents of the action (including me) prefer to focus on the current Administration’s refusal to ensure a continuing American military presence in the country. Here’s why the latter are correct…and more to the point, why we need to go back in.

Yes, you read that right, back in. Not just air strikes, or military aid to the current Iraqi government, but boots on the ground, a military deployment to to keep Iraq out of the hands of ISIS and Iran. To understand why, we have to review the events of the last dozen years.

The initial liberation and its benefits: In the wake of 9/11, America sought to defeat al Qaeda and its allies. Few thought this applied to Saddam Hussein’s regime, until Jeffrey Goldberg uncovered harrowing (and, as far as I know, still not refuted) evidence in the New Yorker, of all places, about Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group in Iraqi Kurdistan put together by al Qaeda…and pre-liberation Iraqi intelligence. That the remnants of Saddam’s regime so quickly linked up with al Qaeda elements after the liberation (New York Post) is evidence after the fact of what we could have expected had Saddam’s regime been allowed to stay in power and build its ties to al Qaeda.

That said, there were ancillary benefits that have yet to be acknowledged by more than a very few. It was no coincidence that the Iranian resistance group with ties to Saddam’s regime brought forth accusations of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions – ambitions that were truthful – in the run-up to Iraq’s liberation. In the aftermath, Tehran paused its ambition, and Libya’s regime reversed its own. Meanwhile, in Iraq, a future without Sunni terror or Iranian dominance could be seen….

…until America seemed to take its eye of the ball mid-decade. Much like today, all of Washington was talking about finding an “arrangement” with Tehran to take out al Qaeda in Iraq, a notion that frightened nearly all Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds, and more than a few Shia. Then President Bush announced the 2007 surge, which was less important per se than his insistence on clearing out Iranian forces with as much vigor as toward al Qaeda. It changed the equation for millions of Iraqis. They now knew that there was a force to prevent their worst nightmares (Iran for the Sunnis; al Qaeda for the Shia) – and that force was us. This is why…

We never should have left: The simple fact is that the Iraqis trusted us a little more than they trusted each other, which was enough to keep the peace that had been achieved after the surge. Yet Obama decided to pull everyone out (as Patrick Brennan notes, that was far from pre-ordained). Clearly, the president believed that he could not claim to have “ended” the war unless the American military was gone – which would have come as quite the surprise to Germany, Italy, Korea, and Japan – where American troops are still stationed decades after the firing stopped (we’ll leave Vietnam – where the regime that defeated us now wants us back in the South China Sea – to one side for the moment).

Yet we left, with al Qaeda/ISIS and Iran still next door (the former in Syria), and they promptly filled the vacuum we left behind. In short, we’re back to 2006 in Iraq.

Still, that also means the post-2011 events can be reversed, which is why we need to go back in, and I don’t mean just to protect the embassy or to use air strikes against al Qaeda. The Iraqi people need the third pole that the American military provided. To use (admittedly crass) political terminology, they need triangulation between Tehran and ISIS. We provided that once; we can do it again.

In fact, we must do it again. Both al Qaeda and Tehran are threats to American interests and American security. That they are fighting each other should be a small consolation. They both must be defeated.

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