America's serial wars in Iraq are ending with a whimper, not a bang. And in the oddest of ironies, it may be President Donald Trump, feared as a war monger, the fifth president to make war in Iraq, who has more or less accidentally ended up presiding over the end.
Here's how we ended up where we are, and how a quarter century of American conflict in Iraq created the post-Vietnam template for forever war we’ll be using in the next fight.
Iraq War 1.0+ The Good War
The end of the Soviet Union transitioned the Middle East from a Cold War battleground to an exclusive American sphere of influence. George H. W. Bush exploited the new status in 1991 by launching Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm, reversing decades of U.S. support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Prior to the 'Storm, the U.S. supplied weapons to Iraq, including the chemicals Saddam used to gas his own people. The American goal was more to bleed the Iranians, then at war with Iraq, than anything else, but the upshot was helping Saddam stay in power. The more significant change in policy Iraq War 1.0 brought was reversing America's post-Vietnam reluctance to make war on a large scale. "The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula. By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all," the elder Bush said, in what the New York Times called "a spontaneous burst of pride." There was even a victory parade with tanks and attack helicopters staged in Washington. America was back!
Bill Clinton took office and kept the fires burning, literally, inside Iraq, in what might be called Iraq War 1.5. Clinton, following the brush back pitch of the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, decided maybe some Vietnam-era reluctance to send in troops wasn't all that bad an idea, and instead embarked on an aerial campaign, with U.S. imposed no-fly zones, over Iraq. By the time Clinton's tenure in the White House ended, America was bombing Iraq on average three times a week. In 1999, the U.S. dropped about $1 billion worth of ordnance, scaling up to $1.4 billion in the year ending around the time George W. Bush took office. It would be that Bush, in the hysteria following the 9/11 attacks, who would shift the previous years of war on Iraq into something that would change the balance of power in the Middle East: Iraq War 2.0, full-on regime change.
Iraq War 2.0, The Bad One
On the flimsiest excuse, non-existent weapons of mass destruction, fueled by the media and America's own jihadistic blood thirst, George W. Bush invaded a nation to change its government to one preferred by the United States.
Though often presented as a stand-alone adventure, Bush's invasion was consistent with the broader post-WWII American Empire policy that fueled incursions in South East Asia and coups across South America when Washington decided a government needed to be changed to something more Empire-friendly. Many believe Iraq was only the first of Bush's planned regime changes, his war cabinet having their eye on Syria, Lebanon, perhaps even Iran. After a heady start with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 ("shock and awe") Bush declared victory for the first time -- Mission Accomplished! -- only to see the war drag on past his own time in office.
It is a type of macabre parlor game to pick the moment when things might have been turned around in Iraq, when chaos and disaster might have been averted. Over drinks in some Georgetown salon it might be agreed the tipping point was the decision to disband the Iraqi military, police, and civil service in 2003. Others might point to the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Golden Mosque, which drove the next decade of Sunni-Shia fighting. The American military insists they had a chance right up through the Surge in 2008, the State Department imagines it almost turned the corner with reconstruction in 2010, and Republican revisionists prefer to mark the last chance to fix things as the day before Obama's decision to withdraw American combat troops in 2011.
Iraq War 3.0, Made in America, Fought in Iraq
Who now remembers President Obama declaring pseudo-victory in Iraq in 2011, praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq, the better to concentrate on a new Surge in Afghanistan. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.
Until Obama went back. Obama turned a purported humanitarian mission in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people few Americans had ever heard of from destruction at the hands of Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 73 nations and organizations (including Chad and Ireland, the vestigial list is still online) was formed to help, even though no one ever heard of them again absent a few bombing runs by the Brits. It was as if the events of 2003-2011 had never happened; Barack Obama stepped to the edge of the Iraq abyss, peered over, and shrugged his shoulders.
The Iraq of 2014 was all Made in America, and due to low oil prices, much of it was also paid for by America, via subsidies and foreign aid to replace the petroleum revenues that never came.
The gleefully corrupt Baghdad authorities of 2014 held little control over most of the nation; vast areas were occupied by Islamic State, itself more or less welcomed by Iraqi Sunnis as protection against the genocide they feared at the hands of the Iranian puppet Shia central government. That government had been installed by Iran out of the mess of the 2010 elections the U.S. held in hopes of legitimizing its tail-tucked exit from Iraq. The Sunnis were vulnerable because the American Surge of 2008 had betrayed them, coercing the tribes into ratting out al Qaeda with the promise of a role in governing a new Iraq that never happened once the Iranian-backed Shia Prime Minister al-Maliki took power.
Initially off to the side of the 2014-era Sunni-Shia struggle but soon drawn in by Islamic State's territorial gains were the Iraqi Kurds, forever promised a homeland whenever the U.S. needed them and then denied that homeland when the U.S. did not need them to oppose Saddam in Iraq War 1.0, help stabilize liberated Iraq in War 2.0, or defeat Islamic State in Iraq War 3.0.
We Won! Sort of.
Obama’s, and now Trump’s, Iraq War 3.0 strategy was medieval, brutal in its simplicity: kill people until there was literally no Islamic State left inside Iraq. Then allow the Iranians and Shia Iraqis to do whatever they pleased in the aftermath.
The United Nations said earlier this month it was appalled by a mass execution of Sunni prisoners in Iraq and called for an immediate halt. There was no response from the United States. As in Iraq War 1.0, when the U.S. abandoned the Kurds and their desire for a homeland, and stood back while Saddam crushed a Shia uprising the U.S. had helped provoke, internal Iraqi affairs were just too messy to be of lasting concern; that was one of the big takeaways from Iraq War 2.0 and all that failed nation building. Do what we’re good at, killing, and then walk away.
The outcome of Iraq War 3.0 was never really in doubt, only how long it might take. With the semi-allied forces of the United States, Iran, the Kurds, and local Shia militias directed against them, Islamic State could never hold territory in what was a struggle of attrition.
This was finally a war the U.S. knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were the same set-piece battle the American army first fought in Vicksburg in 1863. City after Sunni city were ground into little Stalingrads by air power and artillery (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the Shia militias for the ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunni elements. There are no practical plans by the Iraqi government to rebuild what was destroyed. This time, unlike in Iraq War 2.0, there will be no billions of U.S. tax dollars allotted to the task.
The end of War 3.0 came almost silently. There was no "Mission Accomplished" moment. No parades in Washington, no toppling of giant Saddam statues in Baghdad. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi simply on December 9, 2017 declared the war which essentially started in 1991 over. It barely made the news, and passed without comment by President Trump. What used to matter a lot in the end did not matter at all.
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. @WeMeantWell