The Iraq Project: Too Big to Fail?

By Robert Moore

Earlier this week, reports from CNN and other claim that Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were clashing with Kurdish militia in Northern Iraq following the Kurdish independence referendum that leaders in Bagdad called illegitimate. Both forces have been trained and armed by the United States, and our military counts them as important allies in the anti-ISIS coalition that we have lead since 2014. CNN notes that possible escalation of the conflict “could have lasting consequences for the future of the country and the broader Middle East.”

In other news, the sun again rose in the east this morning.

This is a conflict that U.S. national security leaders should have seen coming from miles away over the fertile crescent and stopped sending arms to the region long ago, which were like gasoline on dry kindling. 

The violent history for the Kurds in the Middle East are not a mystery to anyone with a curious mind and access to Wikipedia. Modern Iraq––a European creation that made countrymen out of ancient adversaries - has been held together only by external force or internal despots for the better part of a century. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and deposition of Saddam Hussein removed the only internal obstacle to renewed sectarian violence, and the continued involvement of international powers removed any opportunity for the formation of organic system of governance. 

There has not been a real peace in Iraq since the U.S.-backed constitutional government was formed. A full-fledged ethnic conflict was only held at bay during this time largely by the blood and treasure of the United States and the tenuous expectation by Iraqis that the government in Baghdad would provide fair representation and protection for all. These hopes were damaged through political crises and ineffectiveness over the preceding years, and they evaporated with the retreating ISF units from northern Iraq in the face of the ISIS insurgency in 2014.

Kurdish leaders had suspected and now realized that their people and interests would not be secure in the hands of a distant central government, and the Kurdish Peshmerga largely took responsibility for anti-ISIS operations and security in the north. It was all but a certainty that once their common enemy was defeated, there would be a push for Kurdish independence from Baghdad. 

Yet none of these signs seemed to penetrate and make an impact on the decision makers in the Obama administration, and the Trump administration seems headed down the same path. When the already weak foundation of the Iraqi state began to crumble and ethnic conflict ravaged neighboring Syria, American leaders doubled down on current policies instead of reassessing our strategy and involvement.

Whether these strategic decisions were because of hubris-driven ideology about democratizing the Middle East, bureaucratic intransigence, or just plain ignorance will be debated by scholars for decades. But it begs another question: Have American leaders, both political and military, staked so much of their reputations here that Iraq has become ‘too big to fail’?

The comparison to the 2008 crisis and the rescue of delinquent financial institutions has been made before, oddly enough by supporters of our involvement in Iraq. Politically, the easier road is to deny any mistakes and to go to extraordinary measures to not face the pain and personal cost of being wrong.

Taken in this light, it would make some sense that billions of dollars in weapons, training, economic, and developmental assistance poured back into Iraq after the same strategy yielded no sustained benefits in the previous decade. It would explain the knee-jerk reactions, rubber-stamped and even cheered on in Congress, to crises in the Levant, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and other conflict zones like Ukraine.

If our involvement in Iraq is too big to fail, it would not come as a surprise that we see American-built Abrams tanks squaring off against U.S.-trained militias for control of the oilfields outside Kirkuk, just as we saw CIA and Pentagon trained forces fight each other in Syria. Critics of such strategies would be given the un-provable response that success just required more money and time.

What should be clear at this point is that our course in the Middle East has not been changed by three presidential administrations, though each campaigned to pull back from these messes.

Therefore, it falls to the representatives of the American people in Congress to correct these policies, a cause which Congress will only take up if they feel their jobs are threatened. If American citizens are tired of seeing such ridiculous statements in the news as: “Two armies funded and trained by the United States have faced-off in northern Iraq”, they must demand their elected officials revisit the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) and fully exercise the Article I funding and oversight powers reserved for that body in the Constitution.

Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities and a former staffer for a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee with nearly a decade of defense and foreign policy experience on Capitol Hill.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on October 25, 2017. Read more HERE.