The Iraq war was a colossal mistake that strengthened Iran beyond belief. There was never any realistic chance of installing a pro-American government in Shiite-dominated Baghdad. Our forces are eternally on the hook both for the Iranian-backed Shiite attacks and the Sunni insurgencies, in response to the Shiite hegemony threatening our forces and assets in the country. This is the enduring lesson our policymakers refuse to understand as they continue to grope in the darkness, perpetuating policies in the Middle East based on illusions. In the case of Iraq, there is this illusion that Baghdad is somehow our ally, when in fact it is perpetually an ally of Iran. This is painfully obvious from the developments today in Iraq.
Our continued presence in Iraq and support for the Baghdad regime are actually harming our deterrent against Iran and preventing us from countering it directly in the Straits of Hormuz and through more robust sanctions. Because of our fear that Iran will retaliate against our forces in Iraq, our government has largely held back from destroying Iran’s naval piracy operations in the Persian Gulf, which, unlike the Iraq nation-building mission, actually affects our strategic interests.
This fear came to fruition last Friday when an Iranian-backed Shiite militia attacked our base in Kirkuk with rockets, killing one contractor and wounding several U.S. soldiers. U.S. forces responded by launching air strikes against the Kata’ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades) militia in five locations throughout Iraq and Syria, killing dozens of their fighters. This set off a protest/attack against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad today that is close to spiraling out of control.
While everyone is focusing on the actual sacking of the U.S. embassy, the most important observation is the fact that these militias were able to breach the Green Zone security perimeter controlled by the Iraqi government. It’s evident that the Baghdad government itself is not just unreliable, but is controlled by these very forces.
A man waiving #Iran-Backed Kataeb Hezbollah's flag outside the #US Embassy in #Baghdad.
To reach that area in Green Zone you need to pass several tough checkpoints even after that the Green zone partially opened but it seems that no one have resisted these protesters pic.twitter.com/Sl4DjENrMi
— Nafiseh Kohnavard (@nafisehkBBC) December 31, 2019
The silliness of the US state building and counterterrorism enterprise in one picture. https://t.co/fGH3hn80e4
— Tony Badran (@AcrossTheBay) December 31, 2019
Thus, once again, we are paying for the rope to hang ourselves in the Middle East. We fought together with some of these same militias in 2016 to bail out a Shiite pro-Iran government from the Sunni insurgency, aka ISIS. Now they are attacking us. How about we finally step outside the dumpster fire of tribal warfare and take a more holistic approach to the Middle East? We should draw a security perimeter around our maritime assets, zap anything that challenges them with our air and naval assets, and leave the land-based tribal wars to the Islamists.
This notion that we must remain in Baghdad to fight off Iranian influence is the most circular argument imaginable. The Shiite population is already going to side with Iran in perpetuity, and it will forever spawn endless rounds of Sunni insurgencies. We will never be able to fix the constituencies that these terrorist actors represent. The best we can do is free ourselves from this entanglement, so that we can confront Iran directly from a position of strength.
We have pumped endless funds into the “Afghan government,” the “Iraqi government,” and the “Lebanese armed forces.” In the case of the latter two, we as may as well hand the checks straight to Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just signed off on $115 million in aid to Lebanon’s armed forces, even as a Hezbollah member, Hassan Diab, was chosen by the Hezbollah-dominated parliament to be the new prime minister.
Our policies are built on the illusion of governments in the Middle East distinct from the terrorist actors or the insufferably fractured constituencies they represent. That fantasy is getting our people killed and harming our deterrent in the theaters that actually matter in the Middle East.
Foreign policy hawks will call for a robust response to Iran for attacking our embassy. But we need to also think strategically in the long term. On behalf of whom are we fighting in Baghdad? Why are we backing a government led by Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a man who worked closely with Iran while in exile under Saddam Hussein? That question must finally be answered after two decades of failure. We have nothing to show for the war other than tens of thousands of dead and wounded Americans, Iranian hegemony, the Sunnis fueling more terrorism, and 200,000 unvetted immigrants we’ve taken in from Iraq – equally divided between Sunnis and Shias.
What our policymakers refuse to understand is that the Middle East is not like a game of Risk with different pieces on the board representing different leaders or terror groups. There are multiple warring tribes of Islamists in all of these countries, and in places like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, there really is no “country” to speak of. The State Department said yesterday, “We are standing with the Iraqi people.” But who are those people? Which ones? On behalf of which government over which territory that can be held, and in what way?
To recognize that the Baghdadi government is an enemy of the United States is to acknowledge that not only was the Iraq war a mistake, but that its outcome was a boon for Iran. The same failed generals and civilian leaders who led us into this are not going to readily admit that. Trump himself must finally rectify these mistakes and make this coming decade an America-first decade, where we only fight and die for our own interests at our own border and for strategic assets elsewhere. It’s time to fight to our own strengths rather than to the strengths of our enemies.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.