Column: The big burn

David Brooks /

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it effectively destroyed the Iraqi government. Slowly learning from that mistake, the U.S. spent the next eight years in a costly round of state-building. As Dexter Filkins, who covered the war for The New York Times, wrote in a blog post this week for The New Yorker, “By 2011, by any reasonable measure, the Americans had made a lot of headway but were not finished with the job.”

The Iraqi army was performing more professionally. U.S. diplomats rode herd on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to restrain his sectarian impulses. U.S. generals would threaten to physically block Iraq troop movements if al-Maliki ordered any action that seemed likely to polarize the nation.

We’ll never know if all this effort and progress could have led to a self-sustaining, stable Iraq. Before the country was close to ready, the Obama administration took off the training wheels by not seriously negotiating the NATO status of forces agreement that would have maintained some smaller U.S. presence.

The administration didn’t begin negotiations on the treaty until a few months before U.S. troops would have to start their withdrawal. The administration increased the demands. As Filkins writes, “The negotiations between Obama and Maliki fell apart, in no small measure because of lack of engagement by the White House.”

U.S. troops left in 2011. President Barack Obama said the Iraq war was over. Administration officials foresaw nothing worse than a low-boil insurgency in the region.

Almost immediately things began to deteriorate. There were no advisers left to restrain al-Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. The U.S. efforts to professionalize the Iraqi army came undone.

This slide toward civil war was predicted, not only by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham and writers like Max Boot, but also within the military. The resurgent sectarian violence gave fuel to fears that the entire region might be engaged in one big war, a sprawling Sunni-Shiite conflict that would cross borders and engulf tens of millions.

This slide toward chaos was exacerbated by the civil war in Syria, which worsened at about the same time. Two nations, both sitting astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line, were growing consumed by sectarian violence, while the rest of the region looked on, hatreds rising.

The same voices that warned about the hasty Iraq withdrawal urged Obama to strengthen the moderates in Syria. They were joined in this fight by a contingent in the State Department.

But little was done. The moderate opposition floundered. The death toll surged. The radical terror force ISIL, for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, enjoyed a safe haven from which to operate, organize and recruit.

Obama adopted a cautious posture, arguing that the biggest harm to the nation comes when the U.S. overreaches. American power retrenched. The American people, on both left and right, decided they could hide from the world.

And now the fears of one really big war seem to be coming true. The ISIL serves as a de facto government in growing areas of Syria and Iraq. Extremist armies are routing the official Iraqi army, even though they are outmanned by as many as 15 to 1. Iraq is in danger of becoming a non-nation.

We now have two administrations in a row that committed their worst foreign policy blunders in Iraq. By withdrawing too quickly from Iraq, by failing to build on the surge, the Obama administration has made some similar mistakes made during the early administration of George W. Bush, except in reverse.

It is not too late to help Syrian moderates. In Iraq, the answer is not to send troops back in. It is to provide al-Maliki help in exchange for concrete measures to reduce sectarian tensions.

— David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times. John Costa’s column will return.