The Lessons of Chalabi

In my admittedly limited experience talking to Iraqis over the years, I’ve come to believe that most of that country’s citizens didn’t foresee the kind of sectarian bloodshed that followed the invasion of Iraq. It’s true that the type of Iraqis I’ve talked to aren’t representative of your average Iraqi. For one thing, they speak English and are conversant on American politics. Still, the way Iraqi society had evolved prior to the invasion, there was quite a lot of intermarriage between Sunnis and Shiites, and, at least in the urban centers, there was a basic ecumenical spirit that made the country fairly comfortable for Christians. Even ethnic differences were muted compared to what they would become after the war started. I think you can say the same things about Syria.

One of the reasons why the United States should be extremely wary of intervening in this area of the world is that we don’t understand what we’re doing, and if even the Iraqis didn’t understand what would result from deposing Sadddam, how were our foreign policy leaders to know?

Looking back, it’s clear that we screwed up the entire region by knocking down a brutal, if secular, Sunni-dominated dictatorship and allowing a democratic process to elect and empower the Shia. It made sense for us to this in a couple of ways.

First, if the Shia represent the majority in Iraq, then they ought to have the most political representation. That’s our value system.

Second, the old system of Sunni dominance required levels of political repression and terror that we simply weren’t prepared to implement ourselves. This is also our value system.

Back when Ahmed Chalabi ruled our capital, I don’t remember anyone discussing his sectarian affiliation. He didn’t seem particularly religious and he told lawmakers and policy wonks what they wanted to hear. But, once Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, Chalabi urged de-Baathification, which was basically a purge of the Sunni elite. Likewise, and for similar reasons, he prevailed on Viceroy Paul Bremer to disband the Sunni-dominated Iraqi army.

The response was insurgency, sectarian and ethnic cleansing, and eventually the spread of the conflict to neighboring Syria.

One way to look at the Syrian civil war is that we created the legitimacy for revolution there.

How, you ask?

Well, if Iraq was a country of predominantly Shiites suffering under the thumb of a Sunni-dominated dictatorship, Syria was a country of predominantly Sunnis suffering under the thumb of an Alawite dictatorship. We don’t need to get into a theological discussion about Alawites; it’s enough to know that they are a Shia offshoot and that the regime is closely aligned with Iran. In other words, in Syria, according to our value system and the principles we followed in Iraq, the Sunnis should have the most political representation.

It was natural that the Sunnis would resist the change in their political fortunes in Iraq, but it was also natural that they’d seek to take control of Syria in compensation for the loss of Iraq. After all, we were the ones who said that a religious majority should not be oppressed by a religious minority.

This is not a perfect or complete way of looking at the conflict in Syria. There are many more layers of complexity that need to be understood if you want to have some idea of what has happened there. You can hurt your brain thinking about the conflicting interests of foreign powers. The Israelis hate Assad but fear his Sunni opponents more. The Turks hate Assad but hate the Kurds, too. The Saudis want Sunni control over Syria but can’t control and fear the troops that are in the field trying to oust the Alawite regime. The Russians want to keep control of their military base and port. The U.S. called for Assad’s resignation a long time ago, but can’t find anyone pro-western to take his place. And Iraq, of course, has just become an extension of the battlefield as the arbitrarily drawn border has morphed into little more than an abstraction on a map.

Yet, all those competing and inconsistent interests aside, one simple way of understanding this conflict is that George W. Bush created it by upsetting the balance of power.

What no one should ever forget is how little Bush understood what he was calling our nation to do. Do you remember the infamous “F*ck Saddam, we’re taking him out” moment?

May 05, 2002

Two months ago, a group of Republican and Democratic Senators went to the White House to meet with Condoleezza Rice, the President’s National Security Adviser. Bush was not scheduled to attend but poked his head in anyway — and soon turned the discussion to Iraq. The President has strong feelings about Saddam Hussein (you might too if the man had tried to assassinate your father, which Saddam attempted to do when former President George Bush visited Kuwait in 1993) and did not try to hide them. He showed little interest in debating what to do about Saddam. Instead, he became notably animated, according to one person in the room, used a vulgar epithet to refer to Saddam and concluded with four words that left no one in doubt about Bush’s intentions: “We’re taking him out.”

As just an aside here, I know that President Clinton was convinced there was a plot to kill Poppy Bush in 1993, but that doesn’t mean that there actually was such a plot. In fact, the whole story is quite unlikely. But that’s a debate for another day.

My point here is that you should not elect people like George W. Bush president of the United States because they aren’t intellectually curious enough or cautious enough to be entrusted with our foreign policy. But Bush would not have found it so easy to lead our foreign policy establishment and our nation into war if Ahmed Chalabi hadn’t been going around Washington DC for years telling everyone how simple it would be to get rid of Saddam.

It’s this kind of disconnect between lazy ambition and the deep knowledge required for prudent and effective action that led me to stridently oppose our intervention in Libya. I didn’t have any use of Moammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein and would have loved to see them both brought up on charges at The Hague. But it wasn’t our responsibility to depose them, and it was the height of arrogance to believe that deposing them would make life better or easier for the people of Libya and Iraq.

This is also why I have consistently opposed our intervention in Syria.

Yet, the humanitarian crisis has grown to the point that our European allies are being deluged with refugees. The Sunni warriors have morphed into a truly odious and dangerous group of nihilistic zealots. We can’t stay aloof from these problems, but we need to be ever-mindful of the mistakes we’ve already recently made in the region. Bringing our misguided and inapplicable ideals to the table (some Democracy Agenda) is just more hubris. We should do a lot more listening and restrict ourselves to protecting civilians where we can and facilitating some kind of settlement if we can.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.