By Michael Granger
Sometimes the little inconsistencies shed the most light on a confusing situation. While Libya and Afghanistan have been the subject of much public debate, aside from an insult hurled at a congressional delegation by the Iraqi Prime Minister, a man who owes his very office to the people of the United States, the silence on Iraq has been deafening. This most consequential of all the recent wars, in terms of casualties and expenditures, has been relegated to almost background noise. Perhaps this is because most people believe that the Iraq occupation is substantially over.
But within national security circles, Iraq is not viewed as a tamed animal. One thing is clear, there is no lack of activity by the insurgents and the daily reports render it as deadly as ever: The unyielding occurrence of suicide bombings with their deadly consequences. There must be grave concerns that we are leaving Iraq as an unstable democracy with a permanent sectarian divide and factional conflicts that threaten even more violence.
Following the invasion and the dissolution of Saddam Hussein’s government and the Baath party in Iraq with it, we were left with little choice but to facilitate the majority Shiite sect’s assumption of power. Had the United States failed to do so, Iraq would have been even more difficult. Even so, the United States and its coalition partners had to battle elements in the Shiite sect, Sada Moqtada, for example, who, as an agent of Iran, took exception to the occupation of Iraq. But the main insurgency clearly came from the Sunni sect, to which Saddam Hussein belonged. We did, however, trade Saddam for Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, who refused to yield to the party receiving the most votes in the last election. Regardless of the details of the political turmoil, no one can say when Iraq will be stabilized.
Whether we agree or disagree with the Iraq mission and war, the United States can be commended for managing and containing what was a crisis of epic proportion. Through grit and perseverance, with every imaginable adversity a war of this kind can present, the United States has prevailed. Once thought an impossible situation, after many lives lost, significant treasure expended and our moral standing in the world questioned, we seem to have overcome the most significant challenges. But to say that we have set Iraq on a path to stability and prosperity would be overstating the case. Until the Shia and Sunni can come to some amicable accommodation, there will be a perpetual sectarian civil war, not to mention other factional and personality clashes, such as the current standoff between Alawi and Maliki, for example, regarding control of the defense and interior ministries.
What was done in Iraq cannot be undone. Iraq’s situation is like a bullet that has been launched from the chamber and is heading down range in the vacuum that is Iraqi society. Until something fills the unity vacuum, this bullet will be in perpetual motion, inflicting pain and suffering on innocents. To prove it, the suicide bombings and the attacks on U.S. and Iraqi assets continue with devastating results. When the U.S. leaves, the Sunnis will be left to chew the bitter cud of resentment – resentment for the Shia being in control after centuries of Sunni domination and resentment of the United States for making it happen. There in no way to predict how this resentment will manifest itself after the U.S. withdraws, but we should not be caught sleeping by its consequences.
What forces we have unleashed with the reordering of Iraqi society will take decades to fully manifest. But when these unintended consequences crystallize, we should understand them and be prepared to respond, rather that expressing bewilderment about the nature and origin of future animus. Even though the Sunnis are also better off not having Saddam Hussein and a succession of despots in power, they don’t know and perhaps never will appreciate it. Their biggest gripe will be that we up-ended Iraq’s societal order and we did it precipitously and violently. Our concern should be whether we have left a society in perpetual violence and political turmoil.
So in Iraq we have arrived at the place that Winston Churchill, after the Allies achieved victory in North Africa, said was “not the beginning, or the end, but the beginning of the end.”