Iraq: The Way Ahead Requires Understanding the Past

Shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait 24 years ago, I met with Saddam Hussein to demand the withdrawal of his troops. Saddam was defiant, taunting that the US did not have the stomach for a war to dislodge him, and asserting that were he to be deposed, Iraq would sink into chaos and internecine warfare. While this was a common refrain among the region's dictators in those days, Saddam clearly proved to be prescient.

Saddam ruled with an iron fist but he was not without opposition. There were assassination attempts on him and his sons; there was palace intrigue, including the death of his Defense Minister (and brother-in-law), Adnan Khairallah in a suspicious helicopter crash amid coup plot rumors in 1989; and there were uprisings in Kurdistan (put down with chemical weapons) in 1988 and in Shia dominated southern Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991. Our embassy recognized that Saddam's disappearance could destabilize the country as Shia, Sunni, and Kurds jockeyed for power, and we worried that Iran would take advantage of an Iraq in flames to bolster its position in the region. As much as we despised Saddam, we understood what the aftermath of his demise might portend for Iraq, and President George H.W. Bush made it clear that his removal was a task for the Iraqis, not the United States.

By 2003, Saddam and his regime had become increasingly sclerotic. He had been in power for over 30 years, was 66 years old and surrounded by equally old men. His Sunni tribal support had been seriously eroded, and he had come to rely almost exclusively on family and fellow Tikritis to enforce his rule and crush any opposition. His regime had been enfeebled by a decade of economic sanctions so crushing that former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski publicly questioned the morality of our approach given the impact on the Iraqi civilian population. The U.S. was enforcing no-fly zones over all of the country, flying daily missions over Iraq airspace and destroying any ground radar installation that might try to track our aircraft. Saddam posed so little threat to us that former Central Command Commanding General, Anthony Zinni, noted publicly in 2002 that Iraq was number "five or six" on his list of the 10 most serious issues in the region. In short, Saddam was boxed in.

The decision to abandon the policy of aggressive containment, and launch a war to overthrow Saddam has led us to the precipice of what we had been attempting to avoid for a quarter of a century -- the breakup of Iraq, and dangerous instability for the foreseeable future, including the distinct possibility of a terrorist safe haven in the Sunni tribal lands. And, whether we agree with it or not, the U.S. will forever be blamed for all of the negative consequences.

Relitigating the past is obviously painful for those who were so terribly wrong, and whose actions led to what is arguably the most egregious foreign policy error in the history of our country. But it is necessary as we consider the way ahead.

We cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again, not with 300 military advisers, not with air strikes. There are a number of avenues we can and should pursue however. Iraq is a regional problem and potentially a global one. Secretary Kerry is right to be actively engaging the neighbors, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, and the UN Security Council, and we should listen to their considered views.

That includes Iran, though we should be very wary. Our interests are in decapitating and destroying the terrorist organization, ISIS. Iran wants at best to quell the Sunni uprising, at worst simply to kill as many Sunnis as possible. Those are two very different objectives.

The situation in Iraq is destined to become much worse and remain so for a long time. We need to prepare for the possibility of a looming humanitarian crisis and ramp up efforts to cope with the potential displacement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including establishing safe havens, and pre-positioning food, supplies, and personnel. We also need to do all we can to bolster the efforts of our friends in the region, who will bear the brunt of any refugee exodus. Jordan and Turkey are already overburdened by refugees from the Syrian conflict. Supporting them in saving Sunni lives is a much better use of our resources than air strikes that would no doubt kill innocents and make even more enemies.

We know how to do this. In the 1990s, in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, National Security Adviser Susan Rice was instrumental in creating the African Crisis Response Initiative, specifically to provide succor to vulnerable populations caught in the crossfire of a civil war. The lessons learned from that experience are relevant to the current situation in Iraq. The objective then was to stop the killing and save the innocents. That should be the same US goal now --- stop killing innocent civilian Sunnis; instead try to protect and save them.