Last week, Sir John Chilcot released the final report of the Iraq Inquiry—also known at the Chilcot report—after seven years of work. It is the definitive statement on how the British government became the primary partner of the United States in Operation Iraqi Freedom and how its armed forces conducted the war. The aftermath of the British vote to leave the European Union and the violence on American streets made the over-six-thousand-page study a second-tier news story, but one also gets the sense that there is a profound ambivalence about reliving the events of thirteen and fourteen years ago. Still, the Chilcot report is important because it reaffirms the transparency and resilience of British political institutions. It is true that, like in the United States, no one was held accountable for the strategic blunder that was the invasion, but the report represents a thorough examination of the record from which hopefully the British (and American) governments can learn. At the same time, the whole exercise seems woefully and depressingly beside the point because it is yet another distraction from the larger story that has been unfolding since the first rockets fell on Baghdad: the failure of Iraq.
This is an issue that Americans have been unwilling to discuss. Perhaps it is too painful given the sacrifices made. Perhaps Iraq will not fail, but then again it might, so the country’s dissolution should at least be within our realm of analytic outcomes. Ignoring this possibility just sets up policymakers with bad assumptions about Iraq’s future and the potential for Americans and Iraqis to forge workable solutions to the many complex problems Baghdad confronts. Yet instead of forcing people to grapple with the “what ifs” of Iraq, the report—at no fault of Sir John Chilcot—reproduced a now well-known and well-worn pattern. Supporters of the invasion emphasize the allegedly faulty intelligence provided to the Bush administration and Blair government and shift the blame for the Iraq disaster on President Barack Obama and his decision to withdraw combat troops by December 2011. They argue that between “the surge” of 2006 and 2007 and that decision, Iraq was on a positive trajectory. Both points are debatable. Chilcot vindicates opponents of Operation Iraqi Freedom, laying out how President George W. Bush was seemingly determined to go to war with little regard for any potential negative consequences and that senior officials within both governments were reckless with their public pronouncements about the threat former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein represented. Ho hum. There is nothing new here.
Americans and the British are not lacking for old arguments, but they are lacking creative and realistic thinking about Iraq. When Iraqi forces liberated Fallujah in late June, there was a palpable sense of relief that—once again—Iraqis and Americans had “turned a corner.” The good news continued over the weekend when the Iraqis drove Islamic State fighters from an airbase near Mosul, but haven’t people learned anything by now? Turning a corner in Iraq invariably means walking into another nightmare, which is precisely what happened. Before the horrific Karrada bombings in Baghdad pushed them off the front pages, the Iraq-related headlines concerned the tens of thousands of Fallujah refugees stranded in the desert with no food, water, or shelter. This is a place where the average high temperature this time of year is 106 degrees Fahrenheit. This is not an effort to diminish what happened in Fallujah. The Iraqi security forces have improved, but Iraq’s problems are related to both security and politics, and if the politics do not work in Baghdad, security will deteriorate. That has been the pattern from the moment American commanders began handing responsibility over to Iraqis. Then, like now, there is little reason to believe that politics is going to work. Rather, it seems that whatever political support Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may have derived from the operation in Fallujah, it was short lived. I was struck when I read the following quote from an Iraqi in a dispatch from Baghdad by the Washington Post’s Mustafa Salim and Loveday Morris: “I wish Saddam wasn’t removed…I was against him, but now I understand why he was executing people like those who are in power now. These people are not fit to lead sheep.” Although the statement came after almost 350 Iraqis were killed in suicide bombings across the country last week, it was not just an observation about security; it was about Iraq’s politics. The country’s institutions provide incentives for divisive politics and corrupt practices. And given the vested interests that have developed in relation to a system of ethnic and sectarian spoils, it is extraordinarily difficult for leaders to pursue national and inclusive agendas even if they wanted to do so. Iraq has had sixteen prime ministers since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom and all of them have failed to overcome the powerful logic of postwar Iraqi politics, which is pulling the country apart.
What can the United States do? Americans can keep telling ourselves we can save Iraq, but there is a difference between telling ourselves what we can accomplish and the huge commitment it would require to achieve that goal, which likely means occupying a major Middle Eastern country for decades. This is a long way away from “bombing the [expletive]” out of people until they cry enough, which is not a policy, but the primal scream of people who have had enough of Iraq and the Middle East. Their exasperation should be taken seriously, but not their policy prescriptions. The commitment to Iraq that is likely necessary is not likely forthcoming. This is one of many of the astonishing ironies of Iraq. When there was a weak rationale for war, there was tremendous political will—among Republicans and Democrats in the United States and among political leaders across the pond—to invade. Now, in large part because of American actions, Iraq is a violent, bloody mess and needs the United States, but there is little interest in doing anything more than what Washington is already doing—most recently deploying 560 soldiers to help with the fight to retake Mosul—which is just enough to delay Iraq’s eventual fragmentation but not enough to stave off this outcome permanently. It will be good grist for the Who Lost Iraq Inquiry.