Four years ago I predicted that the result of America’s apparently successful effort to contain violence in Iraq through the so-called “surge” would be a devastating and uncontrollable civil war in Iraq. I titled the essay “Gen. Petraeus’ Thirty Years War,” arguing that
Petraeus created a balance of power between Sunnis and Shi’ites by reconstructing the former’s fighting capacity, while persuading pro-Iranian militants to bide their time. To achieve this balance of power, though, he built up Sunni military power to the point that – for the first time in Iraq’s history – Sunnis and Shi’ites are capable of fighting a full-dress civil war with professional armed forces.
Gen. David Petraeus, then the American commander in Iraq, quieted the Sunni opposition to the American-backed Shi’ite majority government by giving them money and weapons. By doing so the U.S. rebuilt the Sunni military capability that it had ruined in 2003 when it destroyed the government of Saddam Hussein. With the fighting capacity of the Sunni minority now on par with the Shi’ite-majority government army, as we saw in the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
I have nothing to add to what I wrote four years ago about the bungling of the Bush administration as compounded by Obama. The present disaster in Iraq is not wholly of our making, but American policy was a key enabler. The “surge” made it inevitable. There will be no resolution now without the exhaustion of the contending forces, in a long war of attrition with dreadful consequences for civilians, starting with the 500,000 who fled Mosul this week.
In a broader sense, American bungling set the stage for Syria’s civil war as well. I had the Ghost of Cardinal Richelieu explain why in a 2012 essay:
Richelieu looked at me with what might have been contempt. “It is a simple exercise in logique. You had two Ba’athist states, one in Iraq and one in Syria. Both were ruled by minorities. The Assad family came from the Alawite minority Syria and oppressed the Sunnis, while Saddam Hussein came from the Sunni minority in Iraq and oppressed the Shi’ites.
It is a matter of calculation – what today you would call game theory. If you compose a state from antagonistic elements to begin with, the rulers must come from one of the minorities. All the minorities will then feel safe, and the majority knows that there is a limit to how badly a minority can oppress a majority. That is why the Ba’ath Party regimes in Iraq and Syria – tyrannies founded on the same principle – were mirror images of each other.”
“What happens if the majority rules?,” I asked.
“The moment you introduce majority rule in the tribal world,” the cardinal replied, “you destroy the natural equilibrium of oppression.
“The minorities have no recourse but to fight, perhaps to the death.”
We Republican warhawks wonder why the public abhors us and our own party has rejected us. Our bungling has made a bad situation much, much worse, and the consequences of our ideological rigidity and cultural illiteracy will haunt us for a generation.