Our group has been debating the Middle East’s problems since we formed more than a decade ago (!). Most recently, we discussed the failures of the Arab Spring (2/14) and the rise of ISIS (9/14). (I thought these posts had some good links, BTW.) In those meetings, I steered us away from blaming individual actors (like Iraqi leadership, U.S. presidents, Iran and other regional meddlers) in favor of structural and historical factors. This made our discussions a bit incomplete, since there is plenty of blame to pass around, obviously. But, the blame game is not very conducive to civilized conversation.
Now, the luxury of avoiding assigning blame is ending. Who “lost” Iraq and Syria (not to mention Libya, Egypt, etc.) is going to move to front and center as the 2016 presidential election gets closer. With the economy recovering and Obamacare and marriage equality now settled law, the Republican Party is widely expected to try to make 2016 a foreign policy election. Why? Much of the Middle East – especially Iraq and Syria – is a genuine catastrophe. Plus national security is the one issue area where the public consistently trusts the GOP more than the Democrats. So, they are going to try to hang ISIS and the whole of the Middle East’s problems around Hillary Clinton’s, ex-Secretary of State neck.
There is a certain nationalistic narcissism to these arguments. The United States does not control the fate of the Middle East and it’s pretty arrogant to think we ever could unilaterally summon some pre-fabricated peaceful future for the region.
Still, it should go without saying that we are high up on the list of culprits, at least concerning Iraq. Bush’s invasion and our decade-long occupation unleased that nation’s Pandora’s Box of horrors and barred the country’s throat to outside subversion. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians died and millions fled. Al Qaeda infiltrated and is still there, as are Iranian- and Saudi-backed armed groups. Sunnis and Shiites fought one bloody civil war in 2004-06 and basically started fighting another one the moment we left. ISIS is the hideous result of that decade of war and infighting. Syria is different. No one can say the United States caused the civil war, and maybe no one could have stopped the 6-years of slaughter or prevented ISIS’s rise. But, if anyone could have, it was us and we did not really try.
So, I think a backwards-looking meeting assigning blame for Iraq and Syria is important and not just because of campaign politics. It’s the only way to hold our leaders accountable for their actions (or inactions) and learn from our mistakes.
On Monday, you don’t need me to rehash the last 15 years of U.S. Middle East policy. But, I will try to open with something useful to frame our discussion. Probably I’ll just bring us up to speed on recent events and then list the main candidates for culprit-hood in Iraq and Syria. You all can let me know if you want us to focus mainly on the U.S. role in Iraq and Syria’s problems or more on actors inside Iraq and Syria and regional meddlers like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Who do the American people blame for Iraq and Syria? Why do you think they assign blame in this way?
- Why couldn’t Iraqis reconcile in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq? Who besides Iraqis is to blame for that? What specifically did Bush do or not do to screw things up and what should he have done?
- Could action by Obama have prevented ISIS’ rise? How so?
- What caused the long, bloody stalemate?
- What specifically were U.S. options for intervening?
- Is it realistic to think we would have made a difference?
- To what extent are other outsiders (Iran, Arab governments) to blame for Iraq and Syria? Could the United States have kept them from meddling?
- What are the big lessons here for future U.S. foreign policy?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READINGS – Lots of them! Pick and choose.
- Blame George W. Bush. Blame him entirely. Both Recommended.
- Blame Bush mostly.
- Why Bush invaded Iraq – A reminder that ends all doubt it was because Saddam had WMD..
- Blame neoconservatives a lot and Obama somewhat.
- [Update: A must-read, fair-minded account of Obama’s responsibility for Iraq’s deterioration.]
- Conservative POVs:
- Blame decades of U.S. policy towards Iraq. Recommended.
- Blame everybody: USA, our allies and our enemies. Recommended.
- Blame radical Islamist ideology
NEXT WEEK: Is there a looming Retirement Crisis?